A couple years ago, after I’d been at my last job for a while, one of my relatives asked me how I liked the job. I hemmed and hawed until I finally admitted that it wasn’t great. I shot off a few reasons, and then he said something I’ve never been able to shake:
“Are you sure the problem isn’t YOU?”
I don’t remember how I responded in that moment, but I’m sure it was edging toward rude. I mean, how was I supposed to react when someone – someone who’s supposed to be on my side – puts into words my biggest fear? As if it might be true and not just an irrational lie concocted by my insecurities?
I thought about this when I attended The Orange Conference a couple months ago. One of the sessions I chose was called Becoming the Leader You Were Meant to Be. Led by Jeanne Stevens, pastor and church planter at Soul City Church in Chicago, the presentation was both inspiring and convicting – exactly what you’d expect from a conference, right?
Jeanne talked about good leaders having solid identity (who am I – and who am I not?) and character (doing the right thing, even when it’s hard), as well as recognizing and working around – or with – their leadership liabilities. And then she hit her last point.
I’m not 100% sure she talked the longest on this topic, but I sure took the most notes about it. Jeanne said that following leads to great leading.
She went on to describe the difference between foolish following and wise following, and I realized something. In much of my career, I have followed foolishly.
According to Jeanne, foolish following includes a judgmental spirit and gossip, while wise following involves honest communication, healthy loyalty and heartfelt prayer.
I’ve had a lot of lousy managers and bosses. Or, in hindsight, competent managers and bosses whose personalities didn’t really click with mine. But no matter what the problem, I can tell you this: When I found myself in those situations, I spent a lot more time judging and gossiping than I did praying for them.
Sometimes I really hate facing the truth about myself.
A couple years ago, I interviewed for a position at a great company that would’ve taken my career in a new, exciting direction. It involved a proofreading test – and I’m pretty sure I nailed it. But during the actual interview, the manager asked me, “Do you prefer to lead or to follow?”
We both laughed, because the answer was apparent from the things I’d already shared with her. For me, leading comes as naturally as finding punctuation errors and spelling words I’ve never used. But following? That’s a little harder.
The truth is – I really like to be in charge. And while that can be a strength and used for good, it can also hold me back and frustrate me to no end.
After being at my last job for a while and realizing that it was not going to suddenly morph into my dream job, I determined to learn as much as I could from what was not an ideal situation. And one of the things I walked away from that position with was a better understanding of leadership – and the part that following plays in it.
I’m not saying that I’m perfect at following or leading. No, I’m pretty much still a bossy control freak. But I’m working on my attitude and the way I approach my relationships with the leaders in my life, and it makes a difference. Looking for ways to learn from and support a leader is not just humbling; it’s also empowering.
And a heck of a lot less frustrating than banging my head against a wall after every single decision I disagree with and then running to vent about it to my friends.
No matter what kind of manager I work for next or what leaders I have the privilege to follow next, I really am looking forward to following wisely. And someday, I hope to have the opportunity to lead wisely.
Are you a leader? Do you find it difficult to follow [wisely]? Have you ever made it a habit to pray for a manager or boss – even if you didn’t agree with them?
Here are a few more articles about what I learned at Orange:
That’s why I like being a teacher . . . I’m always in charge!
Seriously, though, Mary, this is a wonderful, thought-provoking post. Lots to think about here.
Thanks, Shelly. It’s a mystery why I’ve never wanted to be a teacher myself – it seems like it’d be right up my bossy/leading alley! :)
Mary, what a thoughtful post. I’m glad you took a risky topic (it would be for me anyway) and inspected it here. I think that learning how to be a good follower can make us better leaders. I have found that being the leader in a situation seems ‘cooler’, plus it feels like I can have my way (who doesn’t like that?!) But what if my way isn’t the best way? hmmm… I don’t always like to hear that. You’ve really got me thinking with this one. :) Thanks!
Thank you, Paula. It felt a little risky, yes! :)
Interesting thoughts! I’ve always been comfortable following others and found myself surprised in high school to be pinpointed as a leader. I’m a good leader but I’m also comfortable letting others take charge. Very rarely have I prayed for a boss- that’s convicting!