The 11 Leadership Secrets You’ve Never Heard About by August Turak

DeM Banter:  Had a great conversation yesterday with one of our Detachment Commanders regarding how we are training leaders…his comment:  We are not teaching them how to be followers…how can they be leaders?”  Of course I quickly harkened back to a very ugly (and very loud) Major that walked into the CC office in England and complimented me on all we were doing to teach leadership, but commented… you have done NOTHING to teach followership (noted James, of course I am sure you said it in a much gentler manner).  Something I have pondered for a long time…Augie has great insight below. 

The old distinctions between leaders and followers are gone. Great followers follow by leading. Here’s 11 ways to make sure you do just that.

In 1982 I left a great job at MTV: Music Television for what is now the A&E Network for one reason: to work for Jim Collins. A highly successful executive, Collins poured wisdom into my head by the bucket while keeping me in stitches with his big-hearted Irish sense of humor. One day he said:

“Remember Augie, everybody got a boss. The vice president reports to the president and the president reports to the CEO. The CEO reports to the chairman of the board and the chairman reports to his wife. All God’s children got a boss. If you want to be a great leader you must also be a great follower.”

* * *

According to Louis Mobley, my mentor and the director of the IBM Executive School, Albert Einstein did far more than reinvent physics. Human beings are no longer just passive cogs in Newton’s mechanistic machine inexorably driven by the iron wheel of cause and effect. Instead we are all conscious agents, thinking for ourselves, just as capable of causing change as being driven by it. Einstein’s universe is a fluid place of feedback loops where cause and effect are interchangeable and often indistinguishable. Does the media lead public opinion or merely reflect it? Do parents produce children or children produce parents? Are consumers hapless victims of marketing or are marketing folks just hapless victims of a fickle consumer?

For leadership, Einstein’s revolution means that the old, neat distinction between leaders and followers no longer exists. Those bright lines between kings and subjects, nobles and serfs, bosses and “workers” are gone. We often switch between leader and follower many times in a single day, and success depends just as much on being a great follower as it does on being a great leader.

Great followers follow by leading and here are 11 ways to do just that.

1) Great Followers Seize the Initiative: The days of leaders saying “Jump!” and subordinates asking “How high?” are over. Today’s leader desperately needs followers that bring fresh ideas not passive worker bees waiting to be told what to do. Great followers say, “This is what I think we should do.” not “What do you want me to do?”

2) Great Followers Create their Own Job: Collins taught me a model for every new job I took. Moving quickly I’d identify a quantifiable goal that I could achieve in a reasonably short amount of time. I would then write up a plan for achieving that goal along with a weekly reporting process. But most importantly, I always presented my plan before my boss asked for it. In this way I demonstrated that I could lead myself. The side benefit of creating my own job was getting the autonomy that turns work into fun.

3) Great Followers are Coachable: One time Collins shared a “secret” with me. Rather than lug around a notebook, he folded a sheet of paper into thirds and put it into the breast pocket of his jacket for notes. I faithfully imitated him, but the first thing I did after leaving the company was stop carrying that damn sheet of paper. It may seem that I was just playing the phony to ingratiate myself, but I had a nobler objective. I wanted to demonstrate to Collins that I was coachable. I used a little thing to signal that I was coachable on the big ones.

4) Great Followers Anticipate: One of the most humorous bits from the TV series M*A*S*H is Cpl. “Radar” O’Reilly consistently anticipating Col. Blake and later Col. Potter. They can barely open their mouths before Radar finishes their sentence by assuring them that whatever they are looking for is already done. Like Radar, great followers stay a step ahead of their boss by proactively asking: “If I were my boss what would I want next?” My 23- year -old sales assistant at MTV, Sheri Gottlieb was so good that within weeks 90% of the work that hit my in-box went straight to my out-box with only “Sheri, please handle” for instruction. Soon and without being asked, like Radar, she was intercepting most of my office work before it even hit my desk. Sheri, unsurprisingly, quickly rose from “lowly secretary” to vice president.

5) Great Followers are Great Communicators: If your boss ever has to ask for a status report, you are failing as a follower. Great leaders are great worriers. Great followers preempt worry by proactively communicating in writing. If you do not communicate your boss will naturally worry that you are hiding bad news. Besides, unbidden information is treated far more credibly than information demanded. Poor communicators consistently find themselves on the defensive and perpetually wondering why.

6) Great Followers are Goal Driven: Leaders are busy. The last thing they want to do is “supervise.” Great followers reason backwards: they use future goals to prioritize today’s “activity.” Poor followers reason forward: They react to their in-box and email in the forlorn hope that just staying busy will magically produce results somewhere “down the road.” Your boss is not paying you to “stay busy” or even to “work hard.” He is paying you to strategicallydeliver on clearly defined goals that materially impact the mission. This is true no matter where you are on the corporate ladder as my assistant Sheri repeatedly demonstrated.

7) Great Followers Show Don’t Tell: I am coaching a young MBA student. At our first meeting I began groping for a quote, and this young man quietly pulled out a neatly tabbed binder with everything I had ever written and quickly pulled out the quote. His preparation demonstratedseriousness far more convincingly than an impassioned speech ever could. I am now investing far more in him. Human beings are wired to value action and discount verbiage, use this trait to your advantage.

8) Great Followers Earn Trust: My number one goal upon taking a new job was getting my boss to relax. The sooner I earned his trust, the quicker he would spend his most valuable asset, time, worrying about something other than me. Louis Mobley said trust relies on promise and fulfillment. People who keep promises can be trusted. Those who don’t cannot. Great followers keep promises. It is critical, especially early in your relationship with your boss, that you deliver on every commitment no matter how trivial.

9) Great Followers Offer Solutions: Any damn fool can turn his problems into problems for his boss. Great followers solve problems. If they cannot they always offer their boss solutions along with the problem.

10) Great Followers are Compassionate: Often referred to as “managing your boss,” great followers are sympathetic to the enormous pressure that leaders must endure. For example, leaders may wait too long to make a change or fill a position. Then they spend months and many thousands of dollars recruiting while Rome burns around them. Once they fill the position they still spend sleepless nights haunted by the chance that they hired the wrong person. If they have, not only must they go through the agonizing process again, but answer to their own unsympathetic boss about their poor decision. Examples like this are the ordinary lot of leadership, and great followers not only empathize but look for ways to reassure their boss that at least one person understands his pain and can be counted on to alleviate it.

11) Great Followers are Loyal: If I could not, in clear conscience, back my boss to the hilt then it was time to change jobs or take an unpaid sabbatical. Great followers take pride in making their boss “look good.” Even if I disagreed in private, it was still my job to present a united front once the decision had been made. I never undermined my boss to curry favor with my own people or played politics at his expense. I only went over his head to let his superiors know how great he was, and I constantly looked for reasons to do just that.

As I hope you’ve noticed, many of the same traits I ascribe to great followers apply to great leaders. Great leaders not only acquire these traits as followers, but model them for their own subordinates. But most importantly their interchangeable nature makes my point: Just as the distinction between noble and serf is a thing of the past so are the distinctions between leaders and followers.

Everybody got a boss and I was fortunate to have the privilege of avidly following a number of great teachers and business leaders like Jim Collins. And my efforts to become the best follower I could possibly be paid off handsomely when I finally found myself leading my own company…

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5 thoughts on “The 11 Leadership Secrets You’ve Never Heard About by August Turak

  1. Alright, I’ll take the bait. I agree with the your commentary at the top regarding the lack of instruction in followership, and I think I agree with its importance, but I think this article does a poor job in describing good followership. My grievances are as follows:

    Item 2: Great followers can create their own job, but sometimes this is wholly inappropriate. Do you want an assembly line factory worker to deviate from their role because they think that they can design a better company logo or some other extracurricular project? There are several circumstances where a better follower is one who unimaginatively colors within the line. Their job is not self created- it is dictated.

    Item 3: His example es entirely absurd! I’d understand if he tried the note technique, and then if after a week realized that it was to his liking he went back to standard paper/notebooks. But keeping the technique only to show the boss that you are coachable is pandering for personal advancement. Frankly, that does not make you a good follower, it is a way in which you can attempt to appear to be a good follower. Being coachable is indeed an important attribute, but that doesn’t mean you relinquish independent thought.

    Item 5: I think the anecdote here is also poor. The role of communication is dependent on the leader/follower relationship. Knowing what the boss cares about is good, and knowing when these status reports are wanted is good. But the boss asking you for information is not a sign of poor communication and followership. On the contrary, the author should be talking about how understanding your boss’ perspective is necessary for effective communication. But sometimes, the boss will want projects to proceed on autopilot until they decide to take an interest. Bombarding the boss with status reports may only make them angry. A corrolary to this principle then is knowing when and how your boss wants information. A good follower will then feed information as the boss desires.

    Item 10: This to me seems nuts. There are certain times and places where I can tell that an irritated boss could use some calming, but this is far from a universal rule. Followers don’t manage their leaders, they are lead by their leaders. At times a follower will need to support their leader, but anytime I feel like I’m trying to manipulate my leader it seems like it would be a sign of incompetence.

    My broad criticism across this whole piece is that it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the different roles of followers. It seems like this is an article about how the author would like his personal assistant to act. But there are a wide variety of roles as a follower, and a wide variety of leaders. Each Role/Leader combo changes what you would need from a good follower. Also, this piece is really ambiguous as to what the follower’s goal should be. Is it personal advancement (hence pandering to make the follower appear coachable?), is it the best interest of the company? Or the best interest of your little company unit? And do these rules apply to even when you know your leader is bad and/or wrong?

    To be fair to the author, I have to say that I really like #6.

    But if I could amend the article, I’d add two points:

    1) Know your boss: This is implied in many of the above items, but I think this is the crux. Knowing how your boss thinks and their expectations in any given task is essential. Furthermore, knowing how your boss thinks will let you work more autonomously towards their vision.

    2) Do your job well: Maybe the author thinks this is a given, but you can do all of the things above but if you suck at whatever your job is, you suck as a follower. Doing your job well is in my opinion the most important part about being a good follower. Everything must start from this point.

    So there’s my 2 contrarian cents.

    • All very good Brian… overall, I would have to say I read the article as followers that would someday be leaders… so the follower piece of this article was following to understand leaders to one day be the leader. That is what I think of when we talk about training followers in the USAF… we don’t want them to be followers forever.

      I totally agree with your comments on item 3…and the others as well… but 3 is a bit odd.

      I think I like the article just because it is different…something that you don’t read all the time, and we probably should. Also odd that I came across it the day after talking with “Coach.” As he and I spoke of followership, I mentioned the story of James telling me we need to teach more on followership… so what were we (the 100th) going to do about that?

      Your two points are probably the quintessential followership issues and really if you get those two right, you are golden and getting to the point where leadership opportunities will soon follow.
      Great points Brian…thanks…

      • I think I disagree with the statement that we don’t want USAF people to be followers forever. We in the military will always be followers, but the brand of followership that is preferable depends on your hierarchical position and workplace environment.

        I think this article is a great place to start a discussion about followership, but I think the more insightful discussion considers when and how to apply each of the listed traits. When should you be loyal to your boss, and when is it appropriate to throw him/her under the bus, or when is it appropriate to do something in the middle? Is it ever appropriate to do anything but support your boss?

        Maybe this is why articles on leadership drive me bonkers at times: they pour out axioms, but they don’t take the next step at balancing these axioms against other stressors.

        I agree that we need to think about being a follower more than we do. And I think that the emphasis on leadership might be a bit greater than needed. But maybe we can combine the two, and think about how one can positively influence an organization. What do I need to do to given my present organizational position to ensure that this organization is most effective in the present, and in the future. How does my role evolve as time progresses, and how do I prepare myself for this continually evolving role?

        I like the discussion. I’m constantly trying to figure out how I fit into this tangled web, but I guess I feel that the frame of reference could be a bit different.

      • We have folks that will be followers forever, we all are…but we need folks thinking like leaders…and only a certain percentage will get that.
        More in a bit…

      • Okay…and I hear you on leadership articles…I often wonder who has really been in the arena, who knows the field, and who is in an ivory tower. There is much value in the ivory tower…but it is up to us to figure out what is applicable and what is not. Much will depend on the leader you are and the leader you hope to be.
        I like your thoughts on the tension between leader and follower, that is a great place to begin a discussion….knowing that it will vary between leader and follower depending on status, position, and your place in the organization….and your place in life.
        When you get out here, I would love to pull on that string a bit more…

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