Lead, Follow and Get Out of the Way

Originally published on February 21, 2018 by The Montrose Daily Press 

Editor’s note: Chelsea Rosty is out on maternity leave. This week’s column is brought to you by John Brown.

Lead, follow or get out of the way. The perfect motivational cliché: like it belongs on a poster with an eagle inside of a high school weight room. Have you ever taken a second to think about how it might apply to your own endeavors? The funny thing about hokey inspirational quotes is that the words are often still true, whether you’re working in a locker room or a board room. When we change the way that we interpret the message, these words can challenge our perspectives on leadership in our everyday lives — whether as a parent, friend, significant other, employer or employee. Let’s take this one apart and see how.

Lead 

All of us have had opportunities to lead. Whether it was back in grade school and you stopped a group of your peers from picking on someone all the way up to running a household or managing a corporation — all of us have had moments when we affected the thoughts or behaviors of other people. Like most things in life, these interactions are scaled. Early decisions have smaller consequences than those that happen later in life. As we gain experience we recognize that no two people are the same, and as such, leadership techniques that work with one person may not work with another.

My children are a wonderful example. My son and daughter are approximately two years apart, but there was no sliding scale in how I had to learn to parent them. The way that I teach lessons to my son are cognitive, and he will continue to either disregard my instruction or question my intentions until he understands the “why” behind what I have asked of him. My daughter on the other hand is a pleaser and (for the most part) a rule follower. Feigning disappointment tends to get me a result with her where my son would see right through my ruse. If I had tried to parent my daughter with the same methods that worked with her older brother, even though those methods were successful for the first kid, the entire family would be unhappy.

This is also true with adults. We have to know the people that we work with in order to know what motivates them personally to succeed. Some people are fulfilled by the act of success: being rewarded for a job well done leads them to pursue the top of the podium in all pursuits. Some people search for cooperative fulfillment and need to know that what they are doing is making a difference for someone else. In order to lead effectively, you have to know what drives your people, and then continue to experiment with tools and tactics that get a little more out of them. Ultimately, however, their success will largely fall on the steps that you take to educate yourself on their needs.

Follow

“But I am the leader! My days of following are done! Aren’t they?” No, never… at least I hope not.

At this point in your career as a leader, you have forgotten more than your employees or children have ever known. You can easily get complacent and forget the mountains that you have climbed to get to your current position in life. In the day-to-day workings of your job as a leader, you might even forget to remember what it is like to not be the best at what it is you do. There are few things in life as tragic as this. In fact, I would argue that if we fail to connect to our past, both successes and failures, we are not reaching for our own potential as leaders. We must continue to learn new things and take risks to create a promising future.

Leadership should, more often than not, be made resolute by example. In my military career we were taught that leadership had a two-word definition: “follow me!” But then we often do not present a good example of how to follow, and instead we command some sort of “do as I say, not as I do” style of dictatorship. If you want your employees to follow you, show them how to follow: by being humble and genuinely receptive to their feedback and ideas. In the digital age, I feel almost impotent to learn about things like social media campaigns or guerilla marketing tactics. The generation after mine is far more adept at these things to be sure, so I listen to and learn from my younger colleagues. Honestly, while I might be fine without ever learning how these new technologies interact with my clients, I would be a fool not to try to understand the best way to deploy them. If I do not understand something, then I am more likely to have to micromanage a situation. Or worse, I might pretend like I do understand it, and lose all integrity and credibility. In situations like this, it is better to recognize your weaknesses, be humble, ask for help — and then follow the directions of people with experience in order to improve.

Get out of the way

In his amazing book “The War on Art,” Steven Pressfield speaks to the resistors that so often hold us back from excellence in our lives. Often, the resistance is ourselves.

“Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it. Fear doesn’t go away. The battle must be fought anew every day.”

Pressfield is talking about the things that we tell ourselves that we can or can’t do, destructive messages that others perpetuate in order to bring successful people down to their level, or people not believing that things are possible until they are done (and then doubting them when they do) — these messages have become pervasive, and they are attached to our collective fear of failure. Ironically, when we allow ourselves the chance to fail, we also grant ourselves the opportunity of great achievements. The only way that we can truly get out of the way is to admit that we have weaknesses and biases that will hinder our development.

The same can be said for leadership. In our fear of being seen as a failure, we often shut down our subordinates’ ideas, or even worse, try to influence them to the degree that they are forced to deviate from their original concepts. Well, I have bad news for you: you don’t have the only good ideas. When people come to you with new plans, let them run with them. As long as the worst possible result will not be catastrophic, those ideas will always come with lessons for the next steps. Even better, the people around you will start to feel like you value not only their ideas, but also their creative process. Additionally, they will also be less afraid of failure, which will stimulate growth in completely new directions. As a leader, you have to get out of the way of your team, and that means getting out of the way of your own fears of failure.

Our society loves motivational posters. In the end, all of the cheesy catch phrases that have become a part of our lexicon are still relevant. You don’t need to hang these sayings on the wall beneath a panoramic mountain photo to find them useful. Instead, go beyond the cliché to try to understand how these messages can make you a better leader — not just in business, parenting, or relationships, but in how you carry yourself through life.

John Brown is a retired Navy Seal and owns Montrose-based CrossFit Agoge with his wife Kelly. Additionally, Brown is a world class CrossFit trainer and travels the world sharing his philosophies on leadership, fitness and life.