Leadership paradoxes: Why even leaders have to follow

09 December 2016 -


The importance of knowing where you are going – and who to follow there. The latest in a series leading up to the announcement of the 2017 Management Book of the Year

By Management Book of the Year Shortlisted Author Nigel Linacre

While many of us may be following leaders, it turns out that leaders are following something else. It could be an idea, a cause, or a vision. Whether this is hidden or revealed, it turns out that leaders are followers, which is something of a paradox. If leaders are following, who is leading?

Effective leaders don’t set off on a random walk. They sense possibilities that already exist in the leader’s mind and focus on one or more of them. Vision precedes action. Or as Einstein put it, “Your imagination is your preview of life’s forthcoming attractions”.

If you don’t have at least some sense of where you are going, you probably aren’t going anywhere.

Vision can be immediate too. Watch England Rugby player Owen Farrell as he prepares himself to take a kick between the posts and you will see his eyes repeatedly trace the line he intends the ball will take.

He sees the ball sail through the posts before he steps up to the tee and swings at it. Usually, that’s precisely where the oval-shaped ball goes. Farrell is following a vision which will be shared by the team, which leads us to the next limitation.

Since leaders depend on followers, there must be a fit with followers’ perceived wants or needs.

Leaders must go with the grain of their followers’ beliefs about themselves and their circumstances, further limiting a leader’s room for manoeuvre.

Deviate from the path your followers expect, a path that is now shared with them and your support may ebb away. To adapt the Kinks, leaders are “Dedicated followers of vision”.

Where did the vision come from? This isn’t random either. To lead change effectively, a leader must see a trend, and we have seen trends and counter-trends aplenty this year, each side seeing the others’ trend very differently if at all.

It usually looks like the leader is setting off on a new unheralded course, but actually the trend was there all along. The leader’s key skill was that they saw the trend before it was apparent.

Leaders are prisoners of greater forces than themselves. There may be crosswinds, and even some headwinds, but without some wind at our backs moving forwards will only be inch-by-inch. As Shakespeare put it: “There is a tide in the affairs of men … and we must take the current when it serves of lose our ventures.”

Leaders are followers, and the greatest leaders may be the most effective followers of something beyond themselves, an idea that has the power to transform, to rise above naked self-interest: an idea whose time is now.

And this remains true, even though prospective followers may not have not yet realised it, for it is just beyond their field of vision. Realisation is the task of leadership.

The task begins with seeing the unseen and recognising opportunity, as well as threat.

Before you accept your next leadership assignment, consider what you are following, for this can provide the raison d’etre for your leadership. Without it leadership tends to descend into tribalism, and we have seen plenty of that this year. Can you see your next wave coming?


Nigel Linacre is one of the authors, along with Morgen Witzel, of Leadership Paradoxes, which is shortlisted in the Management and Leadership Textbook category of the 2017 Management Book of the Year Awards

Find out more:

Twitter: @lshipparadoxes

Web: www.leadershipparadoxes.com

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