Wednesday, May 18, 2011

When a Leader Must Follow

Someone once described life to me as a series of totem poles. You begin at the bottom of a totem pole and slowly work your way up. Eventually you reach the top. But rather than staying at the top for long, you must eventually progress to the bottom of the next totem pole, only to have the process repeat itself for as long as you live. The obvious illustration for this is school. A boy starts out his elementary education in the first grade, where he is the youngest in his school. As he progresses from first grade to fifth, he works his way up the totem pole. Finally, he reaches fifth grade and he is the oldest in the school, sitting atop the totem pole. But that summer a funny thing happens: he moves into the sixth grade at a new middle school, where he is the youngest. The process will repeat itself for middle school, high school, and college.

So what does this mean in the larger context? For the sake of this blog, I want to look at this cyclical process in terms of leadership. A person who starts at the bottom of a totem pole must necessarily be a follower. That seems obvious. But as he moves to the top, he will be looked to as a leader. I have tried throughout this endeavor to figure out what makes a good leader. The question of this post is what happens when a leader has to follow? What does a man do when he moves from the top of one totem pole to the bottom of the next? I ask this question somewhat selfishly because it applies to my situation right now: a college senior and team captain will soon be transformed into a wide-eyed, inexperienced rookie.

Ben Franklin said, "He that cannot obey, cannot command." For him leadership and obedience go hand in hand. I tend to agree with his assessment. I think that serving time as a leader will allow a person to follow more effectively. A former leader understands the motivations and problems of a current leader. He will be more inclined to fall in line with what is asked of him. However, one problem could arise from having former leaders as followers: what if the former leader thinks he would do a better job than the current one? Whether the belief is correct or not, it could have disastrous consequences. On a basketball team it could lead to dissent within the team, or in a corporate setting it could lead to the subordinate getting fired. Even if a person has experience what it is like to lead those around him, he must accept his current role. The negative effects of reaching beyond one's established position could foster ill will and create problems. A former leader must recognize his situation at any given time. Just because he led at one point in his life doesn't mean that he will always be a leader. Life is a series of totem poles; sometimes you are at the top, and sometimes you are at the bottom.

1 comment:

  1. I'm touched by this, Jack - your discussion of "former leaders." There's a big of looking back here, and it's apt.