To Lead, You Must Follow

by  Jane Anderson  |  Leadership Development
To Lead, You Must Follow

When I began my career, I set my sights on one day being a manager, maybe even a director. My ambition was to become a reputable leader who had influence and ability to motivate people to achieve their goals. What I learned within a short span of time is that titles and org charts are invisible to the definition of leadership. I read recently that if you are influencing, you are leading. If we accept that as truth, we are all leaders in some aspect of our lives – no title required.

In his book, Leadership is an Art, Max DePree asks the question, “Do your employees walk around like they own the place? They should.” Reading that book changed my perspective in the roles I played in every position I held, regardless of the organization or its culture. Maybe it was easy for me to slip into that “ownership” mode because I was born with the spirit of an entrepreneur and the heart of a follower. I often asked myself, “If this were my company, what would I want me to be doing right now?” If I was distracted and not using time wisely, my answer to that question helped divert me back to the task.

When you join an organization, don’t you want to know everything about it? I admit I’m am information junkie and my appetite for knowledge is insatiable, but when I work for someone they deserve my loyalty. That means taking a dive into the center and learning my way through regardless of title, how high my office walls are, or status on the org chart. Beyond products and services, I wonder who their customers are,  what divisions and departments produced the work, what vendors they use, what systems are in place, how can I gain expertise, and how I can level the learning curve. I was the new employee in a number of organizations, and can therefore tell you orientation covered very little about the company, not even a view from 65,000 feet. This is a problem. Opportunity is just a problem waiting for a solution.  “Do your employees walk around like they own the place?” I had an idea.

In my position as Employee Specialist, my job description was open-ended. One of my responsibilities was to help the Employee Relations Manager with New Employee Orientation. I saw this as an opportunity to depart from the ordinary. We were using slide shows and generic, motivational videos produced outside our company with no reference to our own operations.  Why not produce our own video to introduce new employees to the organization? They could see for themselves how the people, departments, processes, and pieces fit together. Selling the idea was more like jumping off a cliff than falling off a log. My role was to be the helper and follow the leader, not change the program. I suggested that we not upset the New Employee Orientation program. We could keep all the current parts of the presentation, but add a segment for New Employee Assimilation. We advanced a few squares; still no total buy-in, but tenuous acceptance.

The idea involved two components. The first involved taking photographs through all the departments and buildings. The second involved interviewing each manager, then asking them to talk for 15 to 30 seconds on the responsibilities their departments performed within the organization. Using energizing music, I would create a photo and video extravaganza to educate new employees on the merits and services of their newly adopted company.

The pushback: Nobody will want their pictures taken. Managers are not going to agree to a video.  There is no budget for any of this, but if you want to try it, go ahead.

The result: I knew employees who wanted to someday be photographers. It was an affirmation and compliment for them to be asked to participate. Each of them wanted to use their talents and said yes when asked to photograph people in their areas. Employees eagerly agreed to pose for more photographs than would ever be needed. When I asked managers if they would be willing to talk about their teams’ contributions, there was no reluctance; not one said no. The last hurdle was finding someone to shoot the videos. When the time is right, the miracle occurs. One of our web developers spent his weekends doing videography for his church and volunteered to be part of this venture. He had every piece of technical equipment needed to shoot and record the videos, and he was an expert video editor too. I had purchased my own software initially to create a video of our family vacation – using it for this video presentation just raised the value of my investment up a few notches. Every person graciously volunteered their time and talents to step up and be part of the New Employee Assimilation video.

The end: New Employee Assimilation introduced every aspect of the organization through manager introductions in video and photographs of employees at their desks, in conference, and participating in hilarious team building activities which demonstrated our informal culture. What music did we use? Rockin’ tunes like Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, Mandisa’s Good Morning, and Party Rock is in the House Tonight!

Some might say this was a follower to leader transformation, but to me it was seeing a problem and doing something about it. Max DePree would call this filling a role as a roving leader. He said, “Roving leaders are those indispensable people in our lives who are there when we need them. They take charge in varying degrees every day.”

I’m content to be a follower. In being an indispensable follower, natural leaders emerge just at the time they are needed.

Editor’s Note: The Lead Change Group will return on Monday, December 28, with another exciting post! For those of you who celebrate Christmas, wishing you the very best of holidays!

How has an indispensable follower made a difference in your work life? Tell me about it in the comments!
Photo Credit: Fotolia kikkerdirk

About The Author

Articles By jane-anderson
Jane’s professional experience is scattered across industries from financial services and insurance to engineering and manufacturing. Jane sees her background in writing and editing website content as the foundation to her current love of social media. Being an avid reader, meticulous note taker and lifelong learner has fostered her natural pursuit of sharing her world through writing book reviews and blog posts.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John E. Smith  |  23 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Jane – great post:)

You had me at quoting Max Dupree:) …

As I have come to expect, your observations are on target, your illustrations clear and compelling, and your tone collegial.

Your story about revamping the New Employee Orientation brought back some similar memories for me, as I took over that responsibility from a no-nonsense and very admin-oriented person who retained a sense of ownership, even as she “let go” of this particular program,

We met similar pushback to our attempts to make the orientation about those coming into the company and their needs, as opposed to the needs of those already in place. This was more difficult than I imagined. I am remembering now a very earnest and good financial officer who thought that every employee would benefit from a complete review of organizational finances (With eye-bursting PowerPoint slides of Excel spreadsheets). Another VP thought that reading the employee handbook (literally – page by page) would insure that employees follow the rules and meet our expectations.

Our first and most major shift was to start with a one-hour Q and A with our president, who had a politician’s gift for reinforcing our mission, vision, and values during every discussion, no matter the topic. New folks had a much deeper grasp of who we were and what we stood for at the end of that hour, along with a sense that senior management was approachable … distinct difference from previous orientations.

I agree with you that in order to lead, we must first follow … a person, an ideal, a value.

I do have some stories about followers, but I am saving them for a future posting:)

Merry Christmas!


Jane  |  25 Dec 2015  |  Reply

John, I can just imagine your experience! I know that just because I think something is awesome doesn’t mean others will – but like you, I couldn’t see the value in much of what was deemed ‘critical’ for new employees. Hurray! for open minds that allow us, even though skeptical, to dash forward with an idea only we are sold on.

I can not wait to read what you have to say on followers. I am a follower at heart – but not the type that blindly follows, willing to walk off a cliff. Instead I am to be the follower going along behind to tie up loose ends and make sure problems are viewed as possibilities. That’s what followers do.

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