“I don’t know if I can lead. But the real question is, can you follow?”
– Faith Lehane, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Season 7, Episode 19, “Empty Places”
This comes near the end of this classic series. Throughout the entirety of the show, Buffy, as the central protagonist, has been the one in charge. She’s been the alpha of her group of friends, always refusing to follow anyone else while they have always followed in her wake as naturally as if they were carried in an ocean current. I mean, that’s what most of our lead characters do these days, right? They blaze the trail and others simply follow after. But that’s not the same as actually leading, I think. Indeed, when it comes time to lead people who are not her close friends, Buffy biffs it a bit, expecting others to fall in line when she has never done so herself.
Not everyone learns how to lead, but I find that the best leaders know how to follow.
By that, I mean that they know how and when to swallow their egos and their pride. They know when to respect the authority and expertise of others. They know how to give orders because they know how to take them.
Myself, I am much more of a follower than a leader, and I am perfectly happy with that. I can take orders and follow instructions. Now, if those instructions should happen to include leading a few people, then I seem to be able to lead a little, because I am still following. I have an authority greater than my own to lean on. I do far less well when left entirely to my own devices and my own authority. It’s difficult for me to simply “take the lead,” as they say. I am rather afraid of the day I find myself having to wield an authority that is entirely my own. Perhaps that is simply because of my own doubts, and perhaps it has something to do with how I’ve seen so many people in positions of authority behave: with the absolute stupidity of their egos.
I am convinced that many – if not all – of the problems which arise from bad leadership are rooted in the ego.
People gain just a little authority, a little power in their sphere, and they lose their heads. They forget how to work with others, how to treat others, and how to do the job they tell others to do. What is it about taking one or two steps up the ladder of authority which causes people to forget about the ground beneath them?
The one person who seems to never forget the ground is the one who is crawling on it.
This, I believe, is why the first thing the army does with new soldiers is to break them down, to bridle the ego. From there, every step upwards from the bottom ought to be earned, with the first qualification of leadership being the proof that one can follow. The second qualification being proof that they remember the ground even after leaving, ie, they remember how the world actually works for the people they lead.