31 March 2007

Leaders and followers

At this university, I see stuff posted up about "leadership" all the time. Student leadership conferences, that sort of thing. It kind of bugs me, because when I see such things, I think of an old (and hence not very culturally sensitive) saying, "Too many chiefs, not enough Indians." Leadership opportunities are limited, kind of by definition. Almost all organizations have a pyramid structure, and not everyone can fit at the top of that pyramid.

I would argue that the skills needed to be a great follower are just as important. Good underlings are just as important as the masterminds. Oddjob and Auric Goldfinger in Goldfinger. Darth Maul and the Emperor in Star Wars.

But people rarely talk about what skills make you an exceptional follower. Anticipating needs. Working within limitations. Balancing contradictory directives. Knowing when to take initiative. Meeting deadlines. Giving useful feedback. Not as sexy as a leadership skills, but so valuable.

This post over at Seth Godin's blog echoes this point in some ways.

I've certainly noticed that only takes a couple of students to set the tone in classes I teach. If there are a couple of students who are good listeners, they sort of become your "batteries," and you can play to them and get a little bit of a boost from them when you can see they're engaged and paying attention. Students with the heads on the desk in the back? I'd rather they just didn't come at all. It drags everything down.

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