I recently finished reading a powerful book called ‘The Dichotomy of Leadership’ which is a follow up to the number one best selling book ‘Extreme Ownership’ by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The authors who happen to be highly decorated Navy SEALS share their inspiring and at times scary tales on the battlefield, relating how those experiences blend with real world business and board room leadership challenges.
The book ‘The Dichotomy of Leadership’ struck a cord with me as I’ve struggled over the years with the balancing act which takes place in leadership. This balancing act, or dichotomy, is an ever present daily tug of war often between two extremes which are intrinsically linked yet incredibly challenging to consistently toe the line successfully.
Dichotomy itself is an interesting word rife with conflict. Dichotomy is defined as a contrast between two things that are, or are represented as being, opposed or entirely different. (ie – in leadership there is the push and pull of how friendly you become with your employees – too friendly and you lose their respect and or ability to make tough decisions, whereas not being friendly enough alienates you as a leader and keeps you from knowing your people)
As I’m reading this book one of the dichotomies the authors spoke about which is a consistent challenge for leaders is the contrast between leading and following. There’s a strong misconception in the world of leadership which aligns with the idea that if you’re in a leadership role you must always be leading. Decisions should be made by those in leadership, strategies engineered and dreamed up by those in leadership. This of course is an ego-centric mentality and quite frankly one which is incredibly out of date in todays’ business world. Yet this same idea, leaders must always be leading, permeates every facet of business in most companies we encounter on a daily basis.
My awakening as a result of this book came about as a result of my own shortcomings, and yes ego, as a leader. I too thought, “As a leader it’s up to me to decide the direction we’re taking and therefore the decisions we’re making.” Unfortunately this thought process is incredibly short sided.
The true nature of a good leader, as the book artfully describes, is a person who understands they can be in a leadership role and simultaneously lead while following. Sounds strange at first yet it’s possible, more importantly it’s highly impactful in an organization. The act of a leader willingly following sends a powerful message to the leaders team and company that they are out to do what is best and necessary for the greater good, not just themselves as the leader.
Here’s how following as a leader plays out.
A CEO of XYZ company has a tough decision to make when it comes to the direction of her company and the potential new markets they’re looking to develop. Traditional leadership has dictated the senior most person, often times the CEO, makes the decisions for the company. They may collect information from their subordinates on options or alternatives to consider however the senior most leader is the one to make the decision based on as their position and respective authority demands they be the one to blaze the path forward.
However, a leader who possesses the ability to balance the dichotomy of leading and following can recognize that while they are in a leadership seat it doesn’t mean they always must be leading. Sometimes following can produce more impactful results. It also means these leaders are able to recognize their ego and set it aside for the betterment of the company.
Going back to our CEO of XYZ company, as she’s considering where to take the company into the future she may get advice from an employee in the company which provides a great opportunity for growth and future success. Leaders who are successful in balancing leading and following would then lean on that employee to drive said initiative recognizing what’s important isn’t where the good idea comes from just that it is implemented successfully. Our leader, rather than leading, makes a conscious decision to follow and allows the employee to step up with their idea and help lead the company through it. They empower the other person while giving them an opportunity to shine. The leader, in this case our CEO, allows their employee to receive the credit for the idea while also helping them to get it up and running. Our CEO is now following and doing so because they know this decision is what is best for the business.
Key Take Away:
One of the most challenging things to balance as a leader is knowing when to lead versus when to following. Leaders who lead all the time lose sight of what is best for their company while also struggling with humility to give others the opportunity to shine. When we step aside and follow as a leader we encourage others to deploy their ideas while creating a vacuum for our employees and peers to step up, offer suggestions while increasing their likelihood to take additional ownership in their work. Leaders must recognize their ego drives many of their decisions and actions, one of the best decisions we can make is acknowledge our ego and set it aside to make room for others to take the wheel while we encourage them to do so.
If you struggle with the balancing act which comes with leadership, in particular the area of ‘leading versus following’ I highly suggest picking up the book ‘The Dichotomy of Leadership’ by Willink and Babin. The nuggets of knowledge, insight and real world practical examples these two authors share more than once will open your eyes to new and alternative approaches to successful leadership.
It’s common to think “I don’t have the job title which warrants me to be a leader”.
Early in my career I struggled with this exact mindset challenge. I thought “if I don’t have a title which gives me the power to lead, how and why would anyone listen to me in the first place”. This mindset is especially true and often found with people who are in individual contributor roles. We use the excuse “I don’t have the title to lead” as our justification for not stepping up to taking action, even in times when we know it’s what is needed.
I was well into the third year of my career when a senior partner in our office pulled me aside and gave me some much needed advice. Let’s put it this way, it was a thump on the head in a caring way. What he said was simple, yet incredibly eye opening:
“Your job title doesn’t give you permission to lead or make you a good leader people will respect, it’s more about your ability to help others achieve their goals while having their backs. We can lead from any role in the company, there’s no need to wait to be told you can lead or given a title which means people have to listen to you. So, why are you waiting?”
Urghhh, he had a point, even though in the moment my ego still wasn’t allowing me to hear it. After a couple days of digesting this feedback I had to admit I felt pretty dumb about the way I was thinking about leadership and my role within the company. I had to get over my ego and the thought that I needed a title to justify my ability to lead when the reality was, and still is, good leaders are those who take action and help others. They listen, guide and influence because they’re passionate about helping others, first. This in turns builds trust, respect and comradery – these are the building blocks and keys to being a good leader. Titles aside, those who can build trust with their colleagues gain respect which leads to healthier interactions. These things are possible and certainly most achievable even if your job title doesn’t reflect management.
Whether you have the leadership job title or not what’s important are your actions and the intent behind why you do them. Follow these steps to help guide you down the path of leading successfully:
1.Let Go of Fear – the basis for our lack of leadership is fear; fear we won’t do it right, fear people will reject us, fear we’ll look stupid in the process, etc.; once we acknowledge fear is what holds us back from doing what we know is right or what we want we then can go about changing our perspective to improve the situation
2.Build the Foundation - for what successful leadership is by reading “The Go-Giver” by Bob Burg and John David Mann
3.Reflect - on who you are as a person, professional, peer and employee of your company
a.What skill sets or areas of influence do you possess which you could use to positive impact, support or mentor others within the organization
4.Channel Your Vulnerability – good leaders understand this truth, to be trusted as a leader we must be vulnerable. This doesn’t mean crying because the creamer when bad and ruined your coffee, it means being honest and open with your intent, your struggles and perspectives to help people see who you really are. No leader is perfect.
5.Be a Coach – listen and guide as this is the pathway to good leadership; like the old proverb says “give a man a fish and they will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”
6.Act - start small and pick one person or department you believe you can positively impact; talk with that person or department to share with them your ideas and why you believe this would be of value to them, get their buy in before moving forward
7.Inform Management - Share with your manager the idea you have to help support and mentor others within the company, .Be prepared to provide specifics on how this could positively impact the company
8.Consistency - implement a schedule you and your new mentee can follow which keeps you on track helping them achieve their goals, key thing here is to keep it natural don’t overdue it with processes and procedures
About the Author
Travis Smith is the founder and managing director of Square-1 Engineering, a life sciences consulting firm, providing end to end technical project services to companies which design, develop and or manufacture products in Southern California. He successfully served the life sciences marketplace in SoCal for over 15 years specializing in engineering services, consulting, project outsourcing and leadership development. In 2019 he was recognized as a ‘40 Under 40’ honoree by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce as a top leader in Orange County, CA.