The Unsexy Key to Great Leadership

The best leaders know how to follow

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“Hey Duuuuuude!” the lower ranking Marine said to the newly-promoted Sergeant who had been his buddy when they held the same rank…yesterday.

Immediately another Sergeant sat down with the young Marine and explained that now that the other Marine was a Sergeant, the junior Marine should respect that rank and position, even if they were buddies.

“You know when you get promoted to Sergeant, you’ll want even your friends to call you that at work and give you and your rank the respect you’ve earned, right?” the Sergeant said. “It makes people and missions operate more smoothly when you maintain that professionalism at work — it makes you a better follower and him a better leader.”

The coachable young Marine understood and it didn’t happen again. The older Sergeant used Golden Rule reasoning for how and why someone should be a good follower.

The word follower should never be equated with the words pushover or weak because all the things that make a good follower are required for strong leadership.

I’ve studied and practiced leadership for 25 years in military, corporate, and volunteer settings. I have seen how good followership is a critical prerequisite to becoming an excellent leader.

Here is how to be a good follower.

Do the Tiny Things Right

A favorite quote of mine is one my dad told me as a teenager when I was sweeping the floor like a lazy person.

“Whatever you do, do it like you mean it.”

Even the little things — especially the little things. When a follower has the attention to detail to do the little things right, the bigger things often fall into place themselves.

Work ethic has no size restrictions.

Think of Steve Jobs and how he even wanted the inside of the computer that people would never see to be beautiful.

He knew the quality of the little, often unseen things makes the difference in the quality of the big things.

Tiny competent brushstrokes is the only way to paint a masterpiece.

“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”
John Wooden, Basketball Coach

Maintain Integrity and Choose Your Battles

“I am sure that in estimating every man’s value either in private or public life, a pure integrity is the quality we take first into calculation, and that learning and talents are the second.” — Thomas Jefferson

A good follower won’t compromise personal integrity if they are asked to be unethical. Integrity is the first requirement for a good leader or follower.

But don’t confuse unethical orders with just a differing opinion. Perhaps the boss decides something differently than you would — so be it.

You’re lucky if you have a boss that solicits your advice before making decisions. Even if they didn’t run with your idea, you owe them your support once a decision is made as you’d want the same when you are in charge. You become a detriment to the team if you don’t comply with lawful orders.

Stifle the unethical, but comply otherwise to keep the team most effective.

“In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And, if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” — Warren Buffett

Be a Fortune-Telling Anticipator

The best followers don’t need to always be told what to do or think. Their mind and initiative are on autopilot. They are always thinking and anticipating what their next best move could be.

In other words, they are proactive thinkers, not reactive drones.

Good followers do the most effective thing they can think of at any time in the absence of direct orders. Then when they become leaders, they know how valuable this initiative is in their team.

This could be as simple as grabbing a broom on your own and sweeping the floor instead of standing around between assigned tasks. When anyone with any leadership acumen at all sees this initiative, your stock goes way up.

You are already being a leader when you operate with smart initiative.

“Initiative is doing the right thing without being told.” — Victor Hugo

Offer More Solutions Than Problem Observations

It’s great, and even critical, to be able to diagnose problems. But there’s a balance. Are you just a problem finder only or are you also a creative solution finder?

The best followers can diagnose problems and create solutions but their scales are always tipped towards creating solutions.

A problem finder only isn’t much different than a chronic wet-blanket complainer.

A problem finder/solution finder is a highly effective addition to any team — these are the kind of followers who become leaders even though they aren’t in charge yet.

“There’s no use talking about the problem unless you talk about the solution.” — Betty Williams

Forgive Your Boss Their Humanity

It’s easy to hate the boss. It’s even easier when they make mistakes.

This is where humanity, forgiveness, and empathy comes in. All three traits are critical to being a good leader eventually.

You never want to overlook abuse or harassment, of course, but honest human mistakes like losing patience, bad judgment, snapping, or other trivialities shouldn’t be taken personally or even remembered…unless they becomes a real problem.

They, just like you, may be under significant stress at work or home and if you think of yourself as a team member rather than a subordinate, it’s easier to let trivial things go and not add toxicity to the cultural air.

Not jumping on every imperfection in your boss makes you a better follower. In this way, you manage the manager. You lead the leader. They may be perceptive enough to see your patience and humility and want to emulate you!

This benefit-of-the-doubt approach inspires a healthy two-way loyalty in the workplace culture which makes the entire team more effective. You lead your boss when you forgive humanity and always take the high road.

“There’s no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated.”– Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Group


All of these traits are critical to good leadership and many have to be developed when someone is a follower. To recap:

  1. Maintain integrity. Become part of the effort after a leader decides because that’s what you’d want as a leader.
  2. Always take initiative to do the next best thing you can do right now.
  3. Do the little things right. Work ethic has no relation to job size.
  4. Find more solutions than problems.
  5. Remember we’re all human. Lead the boss by showing kindness, humility, and compassion.

They say good leaders are also good followers. I’ve found this to be 100% true over the years.

When you do these things above you not only become a good follower, but you have already become a good leader even though you may not even be in charge of anyone…yet.

“Learning the secrets and skill of great №2s remains the surest path to becoming №1.”— David Heenan and Warren Bennis

Family Man. Leader. 3x Top Writer. MBA Strategy and Management. Marine Corps Veteran. Winemaker.

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