Betty-Ann's Both Sides Blog

The Dance of Lead and Follow

Sometimes leaders need to follow and it benefits the greater good. The team captain for example, plays an important role but it must be balanced with the ability to be a good team player. Those leaders who can step back and allow others to take the helm actually strengthen their likability, image, and effectiveness.

In order for a leader to do this they must break free of their gender conditioning. You see, when we are born and labelled ‘pink or blue’ we are given a standard under which to operate. Leaders are socialized to ‘direct the action’ while others are encouraged to support them. When people step out of these roles it makes us uncomfortable as we expect that men should exhibit leadership characteristics and women should be good followers.

What we miss is that leaders and followers do leadership together. Those looking to be truly successful and respected are those who understand the importance of leading with their vision while also being open to changing and adjusting based on other’s opinions. When most successful, it is a negotiated partnership of equals that flows like a dance.

Unfortunately, like traditional ballroom dancing we allocate all the power to the male leader while the women are supposed to react and follow. When my husband and I took dance lessons I found this not only frustrating but extremely sexist. My husband is musical and athletic, a natural free-form dancer, but I can better remember the steps. Given my active, masculine energy, I wanted to lead but was relegated to following.

That’s why I loved the TED Talk given by Trevor Copp and Jeff Fox, who say dancing should be a negotiation, a partnership of equals. To support this theory, they developed a technique called “Liquid Lead” which advocates using both energies in an ongoing dance where one leads and the other follows and the partners can change position at anytime. The student can become the teacher and the teacher the student.

Today, society places much more value on those who rise above and become leaders and that gets us in trouble. It is equally important to be called to service as followers and many attributes equated with being a follower can be advantageous for leaders. For example, it is important to not only speak but to listen, to establish boundaries but also ‘allow’ things to come to you and to assert your position while accommodating others. If we can give up our belief that one is better than the other, we can use the balance of both. By determining the best time to be a follower and the best time to step into the lead we can use these two energies to our advantage.

I remember one time specifically when our corporate management stubbornly demanded the lead and missed the opportunity to be supportive of our customers. Sitting with a colleague at the boardroom table in our company offices waiting for our senior management to arrive, we barely acknowledged one another. Clutched tightly to our chests, we each held large boards with suggested advertising slogans for the sales department. Suddenly the door opened, and three men came in. They briskly unbuttoned their suit jackets and sat down. I took a deep breath as the meeting began…

The week before, the two of us had been assigned the task of designing a new look for our company advertisements. To save money, instead of hiring an advertising agency, they had set up a competition between my co-worker and me to create a new slogan and campaign. We each took the project very seriously and used every minute of the time we’d been given to prepare for the presentation.

My colleague started with an idea that was much like something we had done before. It didn’t feel fresh to me, and I could tell that management was less than enthusiastic as well. I then offered my slogan. I had thought long and hard about what our customers wanted from us and had arrived at the conclusion that it was responsiveness. I argued that no matter how good we were at mining and production, it was inevitable that occasionally there would be a hiccup and we would stub our toes. What was important, I argued, was that when we did, we would make it right. We would support customers in their businesses. If there was an issue with delivery time or product quality, our customers wanted to know that we would be there for them. Because we prided ourselves on doing a good job of exactly that, my ad theme was “We Respond.”

I briefly explained this reasoning before presenting my idea and then stopped to measure their reaction. The suits looked doubtful. Finally, one of them said, “Responding is so passive. We want to show initiative,” the other jumped in. “We need to be ahead of the pack. We want to direct the action, rather than play second fiddle. We don’t want to acknowledge that we have problems.”

Of course, thought my inside voice, this is a masculine energy environment. We must always appear to be in total control with everyone else following our lead. We prided ourselves on making the decisions and directing the action. I understood the desire of management not to completely cater to our customers and appease them at all costs. If we gave in to every demand no matter how unreasonable it was or how uncomfortable we felt we’d never make any money!

As you can imagine, my idea didn’t get to first base, but I did learn a lot from the experience. Those who are operating with only masculine energy tell others what it is and how it is. They always tout their abilities and never their possible shortcomings. They don’t want to admit a weakness and they don’t want to even the playing field. There are advantages to directing: initiating action gets you closer to your goals. Unfortunately, in their desire to always direct the action, they risk making it all about the company without consideration for the customer. Under this scenario, companies have their version of events and try to bully others into accepting them. Too many people think that the word leadership means having total authority, and this completely misses the point. You can only direct the action when you have people to support you. Out-of-balance and one-sided relationships never last.

Let’s all dance and find joy and enthusiasm for a dance of equals where leaders and followers work together regardless if they are men or women. If you want to find out how to better dance with the energies, read my book Gender Physics. It will help you shift between the two energies in different situations venues and with different audiences, and most importantly, it provides some simple exercises to help you use both.