By Joe Igel

For some reason, when we think of leaders, we often think of bold, charismatic people, who, despite the odds being stacked against them, unite people under them and show them the way to a successful outcome. While leadership can and often simply refers to those in some position of power or authority in an organization or group, we generally lean towards a description ascribing traits and attributes to the term. We think of someone of high integrity and honesty, a good communicator that inspires others.

I shared this view until one lengthy conversation with our oldest son who was actively seeking the rank of Eagle in the Boy Scouts of America. We talked a lot about leadership, what it was, what it meant, how it was exercised and how it looked. As I discussed this with him, I thought to myself that it was a lot to heap on a young man, one who was not even of age to start driving or vote.

When we see a leader, we can usually recognize them as such. But to re-define ourselves in that mold, to build ourselves into one, even if we are lucky enough to have the attributes, privileged enough to possess the traits, the process presents a difficult task. Yet most of us want to be a leader or at least perceived as such. No one wants to think of themselves being behind the lead dog where the view never changes, a lamb being led or one of the many ways in which being a follower is characterized as less than attractive, less valuable.

After one lengthy discussion, our son wrote down some notes. He had been asked a question by one of his adult leaders about the meaning of leadership. He had already served in many leadership roles, kind of the quietly effective type, with a strong character. His response was part of my education on the subject. In his response, he recognized that despite the fact that his role as an official leader was over, or had at least changed, the other scouts in the troop still looked to him when a decision was made by his successor. His response continued with the observation that sometimes the way to be a good leader is to be a good follower. And thus, when they looked at him, he showed his support for the efforts of the new leader in the troop, a move which achieved the desired result and empowered the scout now serving in that capacity. He was absolutely correct in this and I never forgot it.

In today’s world, as we spend a great deal of time in our companies working on leadership training and leadership development, what is it that we really expect? Do we truly understand it? What truly constitutes leadership? Assessing this is the first critical step to the process. It is important to examine all levels of an organization to find leaders and to see what has made them so. Good leaders understand the ultimate goal and will focus on attaining that within the parameters that they are given. And cultivating ideas from good followers provides an excellent insight. It can be too easy to concentrate on the most vocal, the most active, when the leadership that occurs is there because of someone who appears to be in the shadows.