Friday, February 12, 2010

the art of following

I'm not a leader. It took me awhile to figure that out when I was in my twenties and thirties, because back then, we all thought everyone could be whatever they wanted to be. In the 80s, I was all about feminism: women taking back their power and women being just the same as men. In my mind, not being a leader meant being weak and insignificant. In the 90s, I was in one of those women's spirituality groups where we were all supposed to share the leadership equally. Each week, we traded the leadership role. It went as you might predict-- when some women were leading, the meeting went well. When others were leading, the meeting ground down into pettiness. I think I was somewhere in the middle. I can do a decent job of leading a discussion, and I'm pretty good at reading group dynamics. But making decisions, taking responsibility for the direction of the group-- definitely not a skill of mine. And being able to inspire other people to follow, the most valuable leadership skill of all imo, is something I lack entirely. In that particular women's group, we were supposed to keep trading the leadership role around so that all of us could develop our leadership skills, and I do see the point of that. Some things get better with practice, and if that is one of the goals of the group, then it makes a lot of sense. But I also came out of that group thinking that there are some people who will always be better at it than others. And lucky for the rest of us, there are some people who are natural leaders, and we should all be damn grateful for that.

Even now that I understand that about myself, though, I still find myself taking leadership roles sometimes. I was on a committee a couple of years ago where even my limited leadership skills were more than anyone else had. I avoided taking over during our first several meetings because I didn't want to seem like I was... well, taking over, you know? And because I know I'm not the best at it. but eventually I stepped in and took charge, because the meetings were degenerating into pointless, meandering discussions that just went around in circles. We weren't exactly making waves with me in charge, but it was better than before.

So maybe since I've been on both sides of the fence, so to speak, I'm a little more aware of what it takes to be a good follower. There's an art to it, and it's one that is often ignored or devalued. A good follower listens, pays attention, tries to understand, and does his/her best to be supportive of the group and of the leader. You offer your opinion, and then you accept the decision of the group. And the most difficult follower skill of all: you have to be able to figure out for yourself when you need to speak up and when you need to just go along and be supportive, even if you don't agree.

OK, I'm waving my magic wand to come up with a simple example here. Let's say you're on a committee that's planning your child's senior class trip. There are twelve parents on the committee, and fortunately the one who is the chair of the committee is a good leader (which isn't always the case). There will be at least four or five opinions about the destination of the trip. Everyone, including you, expresses their opinion. Then you either vote or someone decides. If it's not the destination you wanted, you let it go and turn your attention to planning for the chosen place. That's easy. They can only go one place, they can't go to all of them.

But what if the group has chosen an activity for the trip that wouldn't be appropriate for all the students? Say, going to see a play that is about mature themes. Your child would be fine with it, but you know your child's best friend would be shocked and offended. So you speak up. We need an alternate activity for the kids who don't want to go to the play, or we need to choose a different play. The other parents downplay the problem and try to move on. Do you stick to your guns, or do you just give in, thinking (as the other parents do) that it will be good for the more sheltered kids to be exposed to some new and different experiences? It would depend-- on the play, the community values of the place where you live, the availability of other options, and how strongly you feel about it.

That to me is the hardest thing about being a good follower. I picked an innocuous example (and it's totally fictitious, by the way, my kids' high school doesn't do a senior trip). But it can actually be quite difficult to figure this out. When do I refuse to give in, because I know that either a) there will be consequences that aren't being taken into consideration, or b) I just won't be able to live with it as it stands? and how far do you push it? and when is it time to just throw in the towel and decide you can't participate anymore?

I'm a follower. I know how difficult it is to be a leader, to be the one that takes responsibility for decisions, and I don't like doing it. So I value someone that does. I admire and respect people who are willing to take that on their shoulders, and I'm willing to be supportive and encouraging. But you have to feel like the leader is understanding and respectful of his/her followers, too. That you're not just being ignored and shunted to the side. At least sometimes, the leader has to be willing to put his/her own interests aside in favor of the best interests of the group.

I'm being vague here and it's intentional. sorry about that. :-) but I still think it's an interesting topic.


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