Leadership lessons from a follower

In reading through “Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host” by Margaret Wheatley with Debbie Frieze, there were many ideas that resonated with me and my experience. One of those concepts would be the rejection that an active, top-down leadership style is the most efficient way to deal with the complex problems we face. Having a more dynamic and nuanced view of how to approach finding solutions to complex problems as leaders and even followers is important to be aware of our roles in efficient solution developers. 

This reading made me think of the following video:

The video above shows a group of concert-goers. Everyone is sitting until one guy decides to start dancing. It’s entertaining to watch, but it doesn’t move other people to start dancing until the first follower. The first follower shows others how to follow and participate. After the first follower starts dancing and shows others how to follow, the joiners start gathering at a faster rate. The key takeaway for me is that the most important person in the change movement isn't always the first person to do something or the head of a movement.

So, what are some of the most valuable and effective characteristics of a leader if we accept that being an effective leader is more than being the first guy to do something?

First, I think being a leader is about being a catalyst. An effective leader can see the barriers in front of solutions and knows how to remove or reduce their impact on moving solutions forward. This includes an understanding that the answers lie in the group, and the leader trusts that the answers will come together if the right set of conditions and processes exist. 

Second, leaders are good at showing support. This can be done in several ways, but it has to do with nurturing the people resources of the organization. A top-down or hero approach drowns out many of these voices and by showing support, those voices can be reclaimed. 

Third, I think there is a humility that comes with being an effective leader. I recently read an article on superbosses. In the Harvard Business Review article "Secrets of the Superbosses" explains, “If you look at the top people in a given industry, you’ll often find that as many as half of them once worked for the same well-known leader.” Those leaders are good at spotting and nurturing the best talent. They understand that a leader develops, grows, and nurtures the skills and talents of the organization. It takes a kind of humility as a leader to focus on your team instead of being the main focus yourself. 

As I reflect on the question, “how might this type of leadership accelerate or expand its ability to affect change at a meaningful scale?” I think of some friends in the Fargo area who have come together around issues by focusing on the power of collaboration. This group of friends have started a chapter of Good For Nothing, a nonprofit that does work for organizations that would otherwise not be able to afford the services. They help with identity work or website creation. Their website describes themselves as a community of thinkers, do-ers, makers and tinkerers applying their skills and energy to accelerate the work of cause-led innovators and change makers. They see themselves as a diverse group of people collaborating, working in new, faster, fun and better ways by supporting ideas and communities. I think this kind of organization and approach to problem solving is fertile ground for the hero-less leadership style. Its foundation is based on the bringing together of talented folks to contribute and find the best solutions. Obviously, there was the first person who thought Good For Nothing could work in Fargo, but it’s not about one person. It’s about what can be accomplished when we learn to follow each other in a hero-less world.