Effective Leadership, Followership, and In Between

This essay is the first in a series written for HS711: “Collaborative Leadership” at College of the Atlantic.

At some point or another, whether through function or position, everybody has been a leader.  When I began to think about my practice and receipt of leadership, I turned to my application to the Coast Guard’s Officer Candidate School, one of the rare occasions after graduating from Bowdoin that I was asked to articulate my beliefs on effective leadership.  In that application, I wrote that “those leaders who I respect most have the same amount of respect for me, are great teachers and experts at what they do, and finally, have an ability to take charge during critical moments that put an entire team to the test.”  Just over two years later, a lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same.  I have worked as Executive Director of Mano en Mano | Hand in Hand, enlisted as a Boatswain’s Mate in the Coast Guard Reserve, and participated in a many situations where you could clearly call me the person-in-charge and many where you could call me a follower.  I’ve seen some things that work and I’ve learned from things that didn’t.   That being said, I still believe in what I wrote: respect, demonstrated capacity and knowledge (expertise), charisma, clear direction, and confidence are still vital traits of effective leaders.  The practice of effective leadership is never in the absence of effective followership, requires an understanding of human dynamics and problem solving, and is never the same in different situations.

Before anybody can lead, they must first learn how to follow, or so the saying goes.  Many of my beliefs on what makes an effective leader come from moments when I was an effective follower.  While leadership isn’t about simply telling people where to go and having them get there, it does involve having followers consciously realize that they are making progress towards a specific goal (which can, of course, be a lofty ideal).  When I was part of a team that accomplished something remarkable (or mundane), I knew that we were moving in the right direction even as that direction was being established.  I felt like I was contributing towards the solution of a problem and that I was a valued member of a team.  I knew who to turn do when I had questions, but I didn’t feel like I was being micro-managed—I was responsible for making decisions even though I wasn’t the final decision maker.

On the other hand, I’ve been in situations where I knew I was an ineffective follower and situations when I knew I was being led by an ineffective leader.  Those examples bring back memories of knowing I was moving in a specific direction, thinking that it was the wrong place to go, but not being able (or willing) to do anything about it.  Ineffective as they may have been, the people taking me on those journeys were still leaders, albeit either inexperienced, arrogant, lacking sufficient knowledge of what we were doing, unable to see the next step, unwilling to delegate, or a combination of the five.  Other times, I was being led by an effective leader, but towards an impossible or fruitless goal.  And finally, there were times when I was the problem—when I wouldn’t put in enough effort, couldn’t support the stated goal, or simply just didn’t say no to something I knew I couldn’t do.

Effective leaders are able (with practice) to recognize ineffective followership and other potential results of bringing a group of people together to work on a particular problem.  In fact, I’ve found (as a leader) that it’s usually more important to focus on the human dynamics portion of the equation than solving the actual problem.  After all, if I could truly solve the problem on my own, I wouldn’t need a team to work on it.  Working collaboratively requires more effort than working alone, but when done correctly, it always produces more effective and more efficient solutions. I’ve led successful teams by starting with common understanding, inspiring commitment, valuing strengths, recognizing weaknesses, assigning responsibility, and relinquishing control.  Not surprisingly, I’ve led unsuccessful groups of people because I failed to get everybody on the same page, assumed that a group knew how to work together (when it never had before), maintained too much control, or ignored obvious interpersonal conflicts.

Keeping the above in mind, there’s one final principle that I’d like to discuss and that’s my observation that effective leadership often cannot be replicated.  What solved one problem will not necessarily solve another and what inspired one group to action will not necessarily inspire another.  What defines one personal as an effective leader may define another person as unproductive.  Effective leadership is adaptable to a world of ever-changing dynamics and problems.  Focusing on the tools and process is important, but not at the expense of loosing unique moments of organic development that occur when you put the right group of people together under the right circumstances.  Once that happens, leadership is all about fine-tuning those circumstances and helping people arrive at a moment of praxis—when they are simultaneously thinking and doing—while at the same time having people arrive at a solution that they believe to be truly their own.

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