If You're Not a Leader, You're a Follower

Last Updated Dec 22, 2009 12:30 PM EST

Are leaders born or made? Can you recognize leadership potential? Can a follower become a leader? Do you care? Well, you should. Recognizing leadership potential, in yourself and in others, is critical for each and every one of you. And it's all-too-easy to get fooled -- and to fool yourself.

Follow the leader

When I met the woman who cuts my hair, she was 19 and dressed semi-goth with dyed black hair and a tongue stud. Still, if you knew what to look for, you could tell she had a certain quality that most people don't possess.

Today - maybe nine years later - she owns her own hair salon, is married to a hard-working guy, and they have their first toddler. No goth, no dyed hair, no piercings. Did she really change, or just go through a more or less inevitable transition somewhat akin to "growing up?"

When I was a young engineer at Texas Instruments, I wore torn jeans and sneakers to work, partied like nobody's business, stumbled in around mid-morning (to be fair, I worked late), and even informal "presentations" terrified me. And when I tried to write a product specification, my boss called me "illiterate."

Still, more than a few senior managers took an interest in my career. Through the bad clothes and bad behavior, they must have seen something.
Can you spot the follower?
On the flip-side, I've had employees who were smart, gifted, and talented, but something was missing. I knew they'd rise through the management ranks, but wouldn't make it to a top-level, leadership position, except perhaps in a startup with a strong founding CEO they could "follow."

Then there are the folks who talk a good game, all full of themselves and what they plan to accomplish in their careers. Some of them even have an executive parent and every advantage growing up. But sure enough, when your paths cross many years later, they have lots of excuses for why they never "made it."

Vive la difference
I can go on and on with examples, but they all lead to the same answers: Yes, it is possible to recognize leadership potential, but it's not always obvious or easy to do, and it's very tricky to see it in oneself. And while certain related traits are indeed inherited, leadership potential is largely developed as you grow up. That said, by the time you reach employment age, it's pretty much determinate.

Now, that doesn't mean it's a foregone conclusion that you'll reach your leadership potential. That depends on your decisions and behavior throughout your career, not to mention a host of external factors, including luck.

And hey, if you don't have it, that's not a crime. Far from it. Leaders need followers. Theirs is a critical interrelationship critical to successful organizations. Moreover, followers can have great, rewarding careers and make tons of dough. They just don't get to paint the business world with their very own colored crayon. C'est la vie.

To me, there's an even more important question: If you had a choice, to have leadership potential and never know it, or to not have it and know it, which would you choose? I'd choose the latter. At least then, I'd have a chance to come to terms with who I am. Which brings to mind a proverb from the Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tzu:

He who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.
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