Advice & News

July 13, 2022

Great Leaders Know How and When to Follow

PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/ Shutterstock

Leadership development programs abound. There are the usual suspects nationally, all sponsored by one or another of the presidential associations. Many universities have old and established programs as part of their academic offerings both on campus and externally. Countless individual campus-specific programs exist. It's all a vast and growing industry, and for those of us who remember the "olden days" when leaders were assumed to emerge organically on campuses across the country, the mind boggles.

This is to say nothing of the books, articles, seminars, and panels at conferences that have been designed so thoughtfully and purposefully. Or of the myriad of consultants and coaches who populate this space. I firmly believe that this is all a good thing and many useful purposes are fulfilled that might not otherwise receive systematic attention, or garner none. Higher education overall is better for it, too.

Still, in my quiet moments of contemplation, I look back fondly at the notion that leaders emerge and are not made. That, of course, is an old scholarly debate and one that has been swaying back and forth for decades if not centuries. You know the broad strokes of this endeavor: "he/she is a natural -- a born leader" versus "only the school of hard knocks prepared her/him for these awesome responsibilities"; and so forth.

Of course, this is a case where both sides might well be right. I tend to think so. Maybe I'll share some of the reasons with examples for why I think this apparent dichotomy to be part of a larger holistic understanding of leadership success in all walks of life. But that's not the point of this essay.

Rather, my purpose here is more focused. It is to single out one aspect of organic leadership development, the source of which doesn't matter but the importance of which is critical to success. I have distilled this organic aspect to an aphorism: "you cannot lead if you cannot follow."

Cannot, as juxtaposed to may not. The stakes are high. If you fail in your leadership, it means that while you may lead, you cannot lead to good effect.

I started developing my thinking on this intangible characteristic, this vital quality and component of successful leadership, back when I had yet to consider myself a potential leader at any level of higher education. In fact, truth be told, I started well before when I was learning how to play baseball. It was then that I first heard the phrase "baseball as a metaphor for life." As an aside, Google it. The internet gives you the full quote with lots of references for its use after you type in just the first three words.

This is powerful stuff. It even seemed so to my six-year-old self. Teams win or lose in baseball perhaps more than any other sport on the basis of collective success or failure on any given day. Sure, there are stars, managers, coaches, and others whose garner a good deal of attention. But at the end of the day, all this individual success is for naught if everyone doesn't do his/her part. One error by a utility infielder late in a game can and does negate 4 hit days and 7 innings of scoreless pitching.

The metaphor of teams, of course, has become common in higher education. You hear presidents and others say such things as "I have an excellent team to work with"; or "all the credit for our success goes to my team"; and so forth.

And yet, when you look closely at the personnel in a typical university president's cabinet you find some number of individuals who, given their responsibilities are also leaders, of academic affairs, student life, finance and administration, and development to name a few common ones. To me, what this says is that the only way this group of leaders, one and all, can be optimally effective is if they know how to follow both the president but also each other where expertise so dictates.

Lest you think that the metaphor collapses because it doesn't apply to the president, think again. The president is also following the dictates of the Board, the wishes of the faculty, the imperatives of the mission and value statement of the institution, the students and all their many interests, and many more including the vice presidents. In a real sense, the successful president is one who takes all these leadership statements, directions, and advice and then follows them until they form a coherent whole which she/he expresses to her/his team.

In the end, everyone who leads successfully must also be an effective follower -- starting with the president.

I know, like you do, that there are examples of "leaders" who followed only their inner self-direction. That kind of inner self-sufficiency, of course, can and sometimes does lead to successful leadership in the short or even intermediate-term. But it never succeeds in the long haul. We all know examples.

So here is a piece of unsolicited advice for all of you who are just embarking on a leadership career in higher education. Learn to follow and do it well, thoughtfully not slavishly, but with purposefulness. And for those of you who are further along on the journey with leadership creds well-established, keep in mind that the higher you go, the more vital it is to find ideas not just people to follow. These principles matter most to the institution's many communities as a whole.

And for everyone, slightly reverse my metaphor and never forget that "if you cannot follow, then you cannot lead." Simple as that.

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