Real leaders make space for others to shine

This content is syndicated from Insights You Can Use by Esther Derby. To view the original post in full, click here.

I’ve seen a renewed cry for leaders in organizations lately. Too often in these discussions, the definition of “leadership” boils down to a role where one individual creates a vision for others to follow. That’s not enough. We need more leadership, not just more anointed or appointed leaders.

“Leadership” is most potent when it’s a verb, not a noun. Leadership is taking actions that will help a group create a product, achieve their charter, grow in capability, solve problems, or improve results.

Looked at this way, we can create organizations that are full of leadership, not just individuals in leadership roles. And, sometimes, the most potent leadership action is the quiet act of choosing to follow. I call that being an active follower. Here are three ways to be an active follower on your group or team.

Step Back and Let Someone Else Step Forward

When one person on the team is the most skilled, it’s easy for the rest of the group to over rely on that person. Overreliance on one person poses a risk. On the operational level, there’s the truck factor: If the most-skilled or sole skilled individual leaves the job for whatever reason (and we hope it’s not because he is hit by the proverbial truck), the team won’t be able to function. No one will be ready to step in. In cases of extreme overreliance, the rest of the group won’t be aware of all the work that person was doing. It might take weeks before someone else can identify and pick up the pieces.

There’s also a long-term risk to team health. When person takes the lead, others don’t have the opportunity to learn and develop their own capabilities. If there’s no place to grow, people will check out and leave—or, worse, check out and stay.

Break Gridlock by Deferring to Someone Else’s Idea

When too many people want to be “the leader,” the result often isn’t action but a complete lack of forward movement. If no one is willing to step back and declare “I don’t have to have my way; let’s try your way this time,” the result is gridlock. An active follower seeing gridlock will choose to follow someone else’s lead for the good of the team.

Take a Supporting Role

There’s a reason that the Oscars have an award for best supporting actor. Without the supporting actor, the work of the lead falls flat. Many jobs demand the work of two people, but it’s not equal in every case. An active follower is willing to take that supporting role and let someone else take the lead. You may not get the credit this time, but chances are that if you’re willing to support someone else today, she’ll be willing to take the supporting role another day.

Back up a team mate when he chooses a difficult-to-implement story–or one that’s at the edge of his technical skills. Pair program with him, but let him drive. Offer informal peer review, offer feedback, or coach.

Let a less-senior member of the team make an important presentation. Play a supporting role by offering feedback on a draft, listening to a practice run, and sharing tips and experience that will help the other person succeed.

When only one person leads, the rest of the team members are turned into passive followers. Unlike active followers, who make a choice to allow someone else to lead in a particular instance, passive followers always hang back. Passive followers fall into the habit of depending on others, whether it’s keeping track of time, coming up with ideas, or galvanizing the group into action. Passive followers wait for someone else to step up, not out of an intention to achieve results, but out of habit or a sense of disempowerment.

Over time, the de facto leader may resent being the only one who attends to time or urges action. When only one person comes up with ideas, the team is missing out on a rich mix of ideas to choose from and may be missing good options. Other team members don’t exercise their own creativity, and the team as a whole misses out on their talents. Some people prefer to let others take the lead and the credit (and also the blame). But, most people want at least a slice of the glory. When they’re always in the background, they don’t get that and eventually disengage. They may even undercut the star who won’t move off center stage so they can get their own moments of fame.

Productive teams count on leadership throughout the team and know that each can lead at different times. Likewise, they expect that, at some point, each will follow another’s lead all in the interests of the team and team results.

When you consider your team or group, which sort of followership do you observe? How is that serving your team? What are other ways to be an active follower? Post your comments.

(An earlier version of this article appeared on

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