Lead, follow, or get out of the way

Teams make the world work. With clarity on everyone's role — and acceptance by each team member to follow that role — virtually anything can be accomplished.

Teams make the world work. With clarity on everyone's role — and acceptance by each team member to follow that role — virtually anything can be accomplished.

Teams make the world work. Very few accomplishments are truly individual. To achieve a collective goal, each team member needs to know their individual role.

To function effectively as a team, there must be a team leader. As Harry S. Truman said, “The buck stops here.” This person is the team leader, the ultimate decision maker, who takes responsibility and provides direction.

There must also be teammates, or followers. These people are ready and willing to help, and often must put aside their own personal agendas for the greater good.

And finally, there are people who should simply step aside and let the team function. Even on the sidelines, these individuals have important roles as cheerleaders and advocates. The key is that these people must do something. As Will Rogers used to say, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

I’ve seen all three roles handled well, and all three completely messed up. Leaders who don’t lead. Followers who don’t follow. And colleagues who insert themselves in situations where they shouldn’t really be involved.

But, when teams work well, it’s almost magical. A high-functioning team is a beautiful thing. It comes down to everyone knowing — and following— their role.

How to be a follower

I had an epiphany about 10 years ago. In any given situation, I would always defer to either lead or get out of the way. I was a terrible follower.

And then it occurred to me: “What are the conditions I needed to be a good follower?” I realized the simple answer is two things: I need to have confidence in the leader AND have confirmation that the leader has a plan. (I don’t need to review or approve the plan; I just need to know there is a plan.)

Today, I am a much better follower.

These days, I frequently facilitate and lead numerous client sessions to help teams move their organization forward. All of these planning discussions move to action at the end with the following four questions:

1. WHAT exactly will be done?
2. WHO will be responsible?
3. WHEN will it be done?
4. HOW will you measure success?

With clarity on everyone's role — and acceptance by each team member to follow that role — virtually anything can be accomplished. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Life is a team sport. We all must learn when to lead, follow or get out of the way.

Onward.