Leading and Following

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A penny sav’d is twice got.
— George Herbert (from Outlandish Proverbs, 1640)

Sometimes, it’s better to focus on being part of the team rather than taking the reins. Leaders don’t always need to be the boss.

Some years ago, I took part in a competition. Scores of international grad students were brought together at the height of summer. Cabs and buses focussed the cosmopolitan kaleidoscope of participants on the edge of an old village. Through winding roads, and a dark forest canopy, a modern conference centre emerged from the ancient hillside. The serine setting quenched the crowd’s growing anxiety for the imminent high-intensity contest. In predetermined teams, the challenge was to design science-led businesses in ten days. From scratch.

At the time, I had already taken part in similar contests; high-octane mixtures of science and entrepreneurship. I had also already amassed some experience mentoring students, building a team, fostering a culture, making mistakes, and learning from others. So, when our preordained team came together on the sun-kissed hideaway to decide our plan of action, I knew I could naturally step into the role of being the leader. However, there were others in our team who had not been in a position of leadership before. When we spoke about what our competitive science-led business might be, some team members fiercely defended their own ideas, singularly, and without compromise. They had bloodthirsty ambition to spearhead our team effort and were hungry to be heard. They wanted the chance to lead the team.

I had a choice to make: Play the “I’m a more seasoned leader than you” card, or step back, give some one else the chance to lead, and learn from their style. I chose the latter. There was no damage to my ego, no dramatic embarrassment, nothing lost. It was more effective to support a less-experienced leader who wanted to spread their wings than to puff out my chest and force my leadership status. Where there was a risk of initial team leadership discussions becoming heated, there was a parallel risk of our precious competition time being wasted. By focussing on the team, I could learn from and help enable new leaders to grow all at once.

Learning from other leaders can help you refine your own style: How you conduct meetings, how you prepare multi-partner grant proposals, how you interact with your team, how you delegate. No one leads exactly like you, so why not learn what other styles are out there?

Author, entrepreneur, and Stoic philosophy champion Ryan Holiday has referred to a related approach known as the Canvas Strategy. On those occasions where you have the opportunity to pave the way for someone else, help them on their way, and take the chance to learn as much as you possibly can in the process. Don’t assume you have all the knowledge and know-how.

A good leader knows when to be led. When you’re not leading, you can be learning.

In what situation would it be beneficial for you to take a step back and learn from other leaders?