Why You Need to Learn How to Follow in Order to Lead

In Major League Baseball when a rookie comes up, they have to carry bags and do other menial stuff.  It’s part of ritual hazing that goes on.  It’s also a part of learning to be a pro.  Having respect for the people that do those things for you every day makes you a better teammate.

Pilots learn how to pack their own parachutes.  Eventually, some grunt packs their parachute for them.  But, those guys never forget about the grunt because if you have to use a parachute, that grunt just saved your life.

In hierarchical organizations, you often start at the bottom and work your way up.  There is ready mentorship.  There is example.  You learn from experience.  But, where do you get that seasoning if you never were in an organization like that?

One place you can get it is athletics.  A good coach is similar to a good leader.  You learn to work your way up.  In high school, it’s always the underclassmen that follow and learn from the older class.

You can get it through clubs or societies in school.  You can get it through organizations like 4H or Junior Achievement.    You can find it through religious organizations.

I think it’s important for someone to join something so they can experience following, and eventually leading.  When you follow, you also learn things that you don’t like about leadership.  You learn what not to do.

There are things that happen during the course of following and leading that seem stupid.  Here is an example.  When I was a basic cadet at the Air Force Academy, we had to do drill.  Marching, left, right, left, right.  We carried M1 rifles with white gloves.  Regimented, in formation.  When the drill instructor said, “Left harch” we all turn left on a dime.

But, when you are learning to drill, often people would make mistakes.  On a left command they’d go right.  I made the mistake myself.  With our group, it happened a lot.  Turns out while marching and doing different maneuvers with a rifle look easy, it’s hard to do well.  When you made a mistake, your face was immediately surrounded by several upperclassman berating and insulting you.  It seemed so stupid.  What did making a mistake on a drill ground mean when it came to flying a plane?

One day one upperclass cadet stopped and said, “If you are flying in formation and the leader of the formation says, “Break left”, and one pilot makes a mistake and breaks right, everyone dies.”

He let it sink in for a minute.

We went back to drilling and we had an over riding purpose.  My squadron won the drill competition at the end of the summer.  I don’t think we would have if that upper class cadet hadn’t stopped us and explained the over riding reason we were doing what we were doing.