lead by following

In their book The Dichotomy of Leadership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, two ex-Navy SEAL commanders, write about their extraordinary experiences while stationed in Baghdad and Ramadi during the Iraq War which helped them become effective leaders. They learned some invaluable lessons and after returning to civilian life, they realized that the leadership skills that they had garnered previously were equally impactful in the business world as well. 

One of the lessons that they share in the book is that if we want to become a good leader, we need to become a good follower. 

Babin tells one of his clients that sometimes for the good of our team, we have to submit to our boss’ will, even if we find it unjust and unfair. Instead of plotting and planning against our superiors, which can backfire on us at any moment, it’s best to follow them without holding any grudges or resentment. If we fail to do so, our actions may have a long-lasting negative impact on our team. 

Along with following our superiors, sometimes it’s also important that we follow the people who follow us. 

In 2006, when Babin was stationed in Ramadi, one late night he and his platoon had been assigned the task of taking charge of a tall building. By securing this building, they could cover a US Army battalion that was following right behind them. Babin had already set his eyes on a building that seemed perfect for this operation, but Kyle, a lower-ranking officer, didn’t agree with him and suggested a different one. Babin had to make a decision, to either go with his choice or Kyle’s suggestion. Kyle was a talented sniper and had more experience as compared to the rest of the team members when it came to these kinds of covering missions. Babin took a step back to reevaluate the situation and eventually decided to defer to Kyle, in spite of the fact that he had a lower rank. Babin understood that in order for the whole team to succeed, the leader sometimes has to step down and become a follower. 

Kyle’s call ended up being right. The platoon successfully cleared all enemies from the area, an achievement that would have been impossible in the other building that Babin had in his mind. 

Whether it’s a battlefield or a conference room, leaders must be willing to let go of their authority and readily follow others when the situation calls for it.