A failure to follow is a failure to lead

Jun 24, 2010 by

This article about General Stanley McChrystal’s failure to follow is worth a read. It is authored, not surprisingly, by Barbara Kellerman, a strong proponent of following. I briefly covered the topic of following in a recent post: Top talent and decentralized leadership and of course it’s in my book. The summary is: hire the best people and share responsibilities of leadership by giving them the freedom to take initiative. To avoid chaos, however, people must be good followers. Good jazz musicians understand this and practice it routinely on multiple levels.

I am presently reading Lead Like Ike: Ten Business Strategies from the CEO of D-Day by Geoff Loftus.  The premise is that General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower was one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century and we can learn something from his actions. I usually avoid these kinds of books like the plague because they are often trying to cash in on the popularity of someone. Some of the most recent books claim to help you lead or speak like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Steve Jobs. Lead Like Ike is an exception and well worth a read. Loftus understands the importance of learning from history and that’s something that good jazz musicians subscribe to. (I recently riffed on the importance of learning from history in this post.) More importantly, the subject of Loftus’s book is a man who truly delivered under immense pressure.

During World War II, Ike was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, in charge of Operation TorchOperation Husky, and Operation Overlord. He had ultimate responsibility for a huge workforce that eventually numbered over three million people. Yet even in such an important role of leadership he followed the lead of others including, as Loftus describes it, the board of directors of D-Day including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and the chiefs of staff of the American and British armies and navies.  Each of those people also had to follow the lead of others.  Here’s what Loftus writes about the chain of followership from Eisenhower to Roosevelt and the American voters:

He [Franklin Roosevelt] had millions of voters (shareholders) who could and did express themselves in such ways as political demonstrations, labor protests, elections every two years, and editorials. While the voters couldn’t knock him out of office except at four-year intervals, he needed their support every day of the war. He had to be responsive to their wishes, and FDR was a master at knowing what the people wanted. (Well, enough of the people at any give moment.)

The president, balancing what was necessary for the good of the country (the parent organization) with the needs and wants of his shareholders, would make final decisions. And since Eisenhower believed in the principle of civilian leadership of the military, no matter how much Ike disagreed with those decisions, he always respected them because the president, speaking for the people, had the absolute right to make them, even to be wrong about them.

Remember: No one is so senior that he or she does not have to follow the lead of others and no one is so junior that he or she can’t make a difference by taking initiative.

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