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The most underrated form of leadership

Is a leader a leader if no one follows them? I remember being posed this question in a social psychology class many years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. Why? Because the purpose of a leader, as many of us recognise, is to lead. And we often associate leading with leading people. But what happens if you don’t have anyone that follows you? Does that mean you’re not a leader?

When I attempt to answer that latter question, my gut clenches and my chest becomes defensive, Of course you can still be a leader if no one follows! my mind replies. Perhaps you’re just not in an environment that is compatible with your type of leadership, I rationalise. But is that true? Why is it so hard to lead in an organisation? Isn’t it the purpose of a “good leader” to adjust their leadership style to the company, to the culture, to ensure that they find a way to influence where they are with what they have?

What makes a leader, a leader? If it is for the aforementioned reason, to lead, what then must a leader have? Nothing inherent to their personality, rather something external. All leaders need a first follower. It’s this first follower that transforms an individual stranger into a leader. The TedTalk video I've attached at the end of this post, How to Start a Movement by Derek Sivers, elegantly explains this concept. What this world needs then, is not more leaders as defined by our conventional thinking, but leaders in the form of first followers. This, I believe, is the most underrated form of leadership but the most important form.

When it comes to the personalities of conventional leaders, some might believe them to be outspoken. They’re the individuals on teams and in workplaces that aren’t afraid to voice their concerns, the ones that do what’s in the best interest of their people to instigate change within an organisation, change that will continue moving the organisation forward. Often though, these leaders do so alone.

Leadership can be lonely. But it’s lonely because I don’t think we’re creating enough first followers – we don’t encourage or reinforce this sort of leadership. When you think of a leader, what image comes to mind? It’s usually someone who stands up alone to give a speech of some sort – the captain of a team, the boss of a company, or the prime minister of a nation. But what do all of these individuals need? Followers.

During my time in the States, my leadership skills were continually challenged. Much like I do now, I was intentional with checking in on my teammates to see how they were doing. I listened to their concerns and I wasn’t afraid to voice them. But what I found was, whenever I voiced them, I did so alone. Not one person ever supported what I was saying in a team setting, even though I was bringing up the issues they had raised. Why? Probably because they were afraid. They knew my coach was likely to hold it against them if they spoke their mind – he feared strength. So the team in turn, feared speaking up. Why didn’t I fear him? Either because I was naïve, or because I truly believed in what I was standing up for. I believed in change. And I believed in the power of the people to make that change. The problem was, I was alone. And one person can’t achieve very much alone.

I don’t feel my leadership style has differed much from my time at KSU, but what has changed, is the people around me. Last year when I first came to Salisbury Inter, I was seemingly immediately valued and respected. How was that possible? I spent four years investing my heart and soul into a team, KSU, and I never once felt valued nor respected. So what was different at Salisbury? It started with the coach – she was my first follower. She made positive examples of my work ethic, my encouragement, and my leadership within the first training session. Something which I have done most of my life, but which had never been recognised. Not only that, but she trusted me. I asked for a team meeting and she asked no questions. In the US, I was denied on multiple occasions the opportunity to have a meeting because it wasn’t deemed “necessary” and because I didn’t first ask the necessary people. Apparently only captains who were liked by everyone could be leaders.

The only way we are going to see more of what we want in this world is if we all individually and collectively stand up for what we believe to be right. Rather than being passive, we need to be active in the things we want to change. Silent support is as good as no support, because no one knows about it. So if someone has an idea or says something which you agree with, show them. Be active. Make a stand. Because until one person stands next to that individual, that individual will go through their life believing they are all alone. Believing they aren’t a leader. Believing they aren’t making a difference or having an influence. And potentially believing there is something innately wrong with them.

If we want change to happen, we have to be the change. We have to be courageous. We have to choose to stand for something or we risk falling for anything. You don’t have to be the voice of change, but you can be a voice purely by choosing to follow. And that, I believe, is the most important form of leadership. Being a leader by being a first follower. So what do you say, who are you choosing to follow?

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