image Before We can lead, We must first learn to Follow.

What makes a great leader? Some of us may already be in a position of leadership and we think we are able leaders. Many of us are but there are always more lessons to learn.

With leadership comes great responsibility. This responsibility is sometimes mismanaged and coupled with the idea that as a leader we always know what’s best. Some of us feel our word is the law and the buck stops with us. However I urge us to think back on the people who influenced us and what drew us to them and their leadership style.

Never have I read about a great or even a notorious world leader didn’t follow another at one point in their lives. These leaders, for better or for worse are remembered throughout history and we constantly look back on their past and try to decipher what made them such great leaders.

Many of our great leaders in the United States had someone they modeled their leadership style after. However they used their apprenticeships as a learning experience to become a better and more able leader than their predecessors.

A good leader takes what he or she has learned from someone they once followed and adapted their own principles. These are the great leaders we remember, and what made them great was their ability to remember and connect to their roots and expand upon them and develop their own unique leadership qualities.

I use Abraham Lincoln as my example because he is widely and almost universally considered to be a great leader. The tragedy is that many people fail to understand why he was so special and what made him stand above all others.

Lincoln came from humble beginnings. He was a sponge to those whom he respected and followed in his youth. Even at an early age he began to display certain qualities that set him apart from other great me of his time. Let their be no mistake about it, Lincoln lived in a time of great thinkers, men and leaders.

Lincoln knew how to follow. He was a master tactician of knowing when to sit back and listen and when to step up and take charge. Even as The President of The United States he would often cede certain decisions to men whom were his trusted associates; even one-time rivals. He knew that even people “below” him had knowledge and something to bring to the table. He was an inclusive leader, not exclusive.

Being an effective leader one must place him/herself on equal footing with those who work “below” us. Yet the great contradiction is that to be an effective leader one has to know when to step up and take charge while at the same time remain open to the ideas of those “below” or beside him/her.

Leadership is an art form. If a leader comes on too strong and tries to do everything themselves; hence micromanage, they will often burn themselves out or lose the trust and confidence in those a leader is supposed to lead. This typically leads to a more dictatorial style of leadership, which more often than not produces negative results.

A good leader leads by example. A good leader does not ask of the people they lead to do something a leader wouldn’t do themselves. Time Magazine would probably like to forget that they named Adolf Hitler “Man of the Year” in 1938, right as he was in the middle of planning to conquer Europe and eventually the world. Time magazine, to their credit, claimed his leadership was “for better of for worse.” He was leading. He was trying to offer solutions to the crashing global economy.

Today we find many flaws in Hitler’s leadership style. He was a dictator who ruled through fear, terror, appointing thugs to do his genocides and signing documents that led to some of the grossest atrocities the world has ever seen. Would Hitler have picked up a weapon and fired it at one of the allies during WWII? There has been no documentation of that. The same could be said for Churchill and Roosevelt, however I will point out that they were trying to rally people to a greater cause of freedom and to suppress the spread of National Socialism that took away the rights of self-determination.

Hitler did not display true leadership qualities, he displayed cowardice. A good leader also knows when to step back and cede responsibility to others. Many Germans were against Hitler’s “Final Solution” yet his leadership style only encouraged those who wished to stop him to take life threatening drastic measures. There was no discussion, Hitler ruled by fear and false propaganda and millions died because of his abuse of power and his mismanagement of leadership. In doing so, he lost the trust of those he was meant to lead.

Turning gears away from the brief history lesson, leadership is all about trust. A good leader will have those that they lead willing to follow and do anything for them because they equally share in the vision and qualities of a good leader. A good leader leads from the front and never from behind. A good leader shares their vision and does not hide it. They are transparent.

An able leader is open to new ideas and suggestions from those they lead. This again helps to build a trust and bond between a leader and those who follow.

A good leader can admit their faults but also fix their own mistakes. One who can be vulnerable, yet mentally strong enough to tackle any problem. This type of leader has faith in those who have chosen to follow. A good leader has earned the faith of those who follow by his/her actions, decisions and temperament.

To be thrust in a position of leadership often tempts us with the ability to make swift decisive decisions. Sometimes this is necessary, but a wise leader always be open to the idea of seeking council.

Seeking council by some may be seen as a sign of weakness, but in reality, seeking council strengthens the bond and trust even further between the leader and the followers. General George H. Meade, Commanding general of The Army of The Potomac during the Civil War often sought council from his Corp commanders. In doing so, he may have saved the Union from ruin and arguably won the battle of Gettysburg because of his methodology and saved countless lives afterwards in campaigns against Robert E. Lee. (I can’t help myself sometimes, I am a history wonk!)

A great leader must be many things. They must be decisive, yet open to opinions, they must show strength but not afraid to be vulnerable. They must believe in their cause greater than all others, for if a great leader can accomplish this, others will follow without being told or forced.

A great and able leader must be able to balance responsibilities and trust those who follow to be able in the task of leadership as well. The greatest leaders never lead alone, the greatest leaders inspired and trusted others to unite and follow in their cause such as Lincoln did. 

As I have learned and continued learning the role of leadership, these traits have helped serve me well. I have gained the trust of those I lead by allowing them to be on equal footing as me. Someone has to step out in front and represent the cause and I will often do it without hesitation.

Yet I trust those beside me that if I can’t get the job done that I have taught and inspired those with me to lend assistance. This has helped them increase their own feeling of worth. Perhaps one day another leader will take my place in the things I lead. It is my hope that my example and learning from the examples of other great leaders before me will inspire a new generation of leaders who have and understand the qualities I learned as a follower to be a great leader.

Author: Adam Wilkinson

Image: flickr

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