If You Want to Be a Great Leader, Try Following

The best leadership lessons are often learned when we put ourselves in the role of a follower.

This past week, I went on my annual bird hunting trip to New England. I’ve been making this trip for years and enjoy getting away from work and being in the outdoors.

One of my favorite parts of the trip is that I’m not the leader.

The people I hunt with have been hunting these areas for a lot longer than me. So, I’m content to sit back and let others lead. I get to just relax and enjoy being in the woods, plus I get the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a follower.

Deep in the New Hampshire woods this week, I made some interesting observations.

The best leadership lessons are often learned when we put ourselves in the role of a follower. Click To Tweet

Our third day of hunting started out normal. Six of us and three dogs entered the forest at the base of a remote mountain. Once we were clear from the dense underbrush, we discussed the plan of attack. We hadn’t been in this area for several years.

There was a debate among the more experienced hunters about the best way to hunt this area. I heard discussions about skidder trails, clear cuts, spruce bogs, and other details about this mountain. I wasn’t really listening. I was just waiting for my instructions. I was content to just follow the plan, whatever it was.

Without reaching any conclusion that I could tell, our most experienced hunter just picked up his gun and started walking up the mountain. I was confused and didn’t know what we were doing, so I asked, “What’s the plan?”

“Just line up and walk up the hill keeping the sun on your right shoulder. If anything changes, I’ll let you know over the radio.”

OK, I thought. I can do that. So, I set off.

Every few minutes, I would call out to the person on my left and my right to ensure we wouldn’t get separated in the deep woodland expanse. However, about 30 minutes into the push, I could no longer hear the person to my left.

I wasn’t worried, though. This happens a lot when we are pushing through a dense forest. Since there hadn’t been any changes announced over the radios, I continued to hike up the mountain with the sun on my right shoulder.

About 45 minutes later, our leader came over the radio looking for us. He was coming in very weak, indicating he was far away.

I called out to the guys on my right. Three of us were still together, but I realized that the rest of the team had traveled far to the left – almost out of radio range. Over the radio, I asked our leader to shout out loud to figure out where he was.

When I heard his faint voice in the distance, I realized we were almost half a mile apart. We had been walking in separate directions in the dense woods for nearly an hour. We need to backtrack to regroup.

When we finally got the group back together again, I asked our leader what had happened. He told me that when he got to the skidder trail, he realized it was the end of the area he wanted to hunt. So, he turned left to work in a different direction, failing to notify everyone of the change.

Our directions were to walk up the hill and listen for any changes on the radio. Since no changes were announced, three of us continued deep into the forest, utterly unaware that part of the group had changed course. The plan had changed, and no one told us.

The good news is that, other than some sore legs, nothing terrible happened due to this mix-up. But, it does illustrate some important aspects of leadership.

First, it’s important to provide clear directions when you assign a task. This includes allowing people to ask questions to make sure they fully understand the assignment. I talk about this in my book, All in the Same Boat. I learned in the Navy that most misunderstandings occur when the task is first assigned.

Second, it’s critical to follow up throughout an assignment to ensure the orders are still clear. Our leader was silent throughout the entire hunt leading us to falsely assume everything was proceeding to plan. In business, following up with employees on assignments prevents miscommunication and costly mistakes.

Third, it’s essential to let employees know when things change. Just like my hunting experience, conditions on the ground often require us to change our plans. We need to communicate those changes clearly to our employees so they can adjust their actions.

Communication is a critical part of leading people, and that fact was strongly reinforced in the woods this week.

Communication is a critical part of leading people. Click To Tweet

It also reminded me that the best leadership lessons are often learned when we put ourselves in the role of a follower. In my case, I saw how ineffective communication led to poor performance.

I encourage you to put yourself into a follower role every once in a while and see what you learn. The lessons are often more powerful when you see them from the other side.

Who’s Gonna Carry the Boats?

Have you seen the video of former Navy SEAL David Goggins working out with endurance athlete Cameron Hanes?

In the video, Goggins is bench-pressing after what looks like a long workout. As he struggles, he yells out, “You don’t know me, son!” multiple times and pushes through a few more reps. As he continues to weaken, he stares at the camera intensely and screams out, “Who’s gonna carry the boats?”

Goggins reaches deep into his soul at his breaking point and pulls out a mantra that he developed in the Navy during BUD/S training.

He asks the question, “Who’s gonna carry the boats?”

Navy BUD/S training is basic training for Navy SEALs. Located in Coronado, California, it’s considered the toughest physical military training in the world. As part of that training, candidates are assigned to crews and carry inflatable boats that weigh more than 200 pounds through deep sand.

They do this for hours on end until candidates collapse from sheer exhaustion.

Goggins developed this mantra to keep his boat crew motivated as they suffered together. As teammates would drop off, the boat became heavier, and the remaining candidates would feel frustrated, depressed, and mentally fatigued. They all wanted to quit.

He would yell out, “Who’s gonna carry the boats?” to spur the remaining team forward and encourage those who dropped out to get back into the fight.

As I thought of this question, I considered it from a leadership perspective.

On that beach, Goggins led by example. He wasn’t just encouraging his crew with his words; he was leading them with his actions as well. He could only motivate those exhausted sailors on that lonely beach because he was physically, mentally, and emotionally strong.

He answered the question of “who’s gonna carry the boats” by his actions.

His actions said, “I will. Who’s with me?”

As leaders, we can’t expect people to do things we are unable or unwilling to do ourselves. Our people need to see us lead by example.

As leaders, we can’t expect people to do things we are unable or unwilling to do ourselves Click To Tweet

When things get tough, people will look to us to see how we’re dealing with the challenge. If we wilt under pressure, our team will as well. This is why leaders need to train themselves to be physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually strong.

Leaders need to train themselves to be physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually strong. Click To Tweet

The stronger we are, the more able we are to lead, especially in tough times. And in business, there will always be tough times.

Think about this in your leadership journey.

Are you physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually strong?

Are you preparing yourself to lead in the tough times?

How will you answer the question, “Who’s gonna carry the boats?”

The only correct answer as a leader is, “I will. Who’s with me?”

If you’re interested in how I learned how to lead during challenging times in the Navy, check out my latest leadership book, All in the Same Boat.

[Photo Nelvin C. Cepeda]

The Crushing Weight of Bureaucracy

When I started my corporate career, I worked for a global company led by the hard-charging CEO, Percy Barnevik.

He believed in pushing decision-making to the lowest level. His corporate mantra was, “think global, act local.” He empowered his local managers to take charge and make things happen.

As a young general manager of a manufacturing business in that company, I was thankful to be working for a CEO who understood the power of delegating authority. I had the autonomy to run my business as I saw fit so long as I got results.

I was not burdened with extraneous paperwork or monthly reporting. Instead, Barnevik kept his headquarters small and focused his senior management team on ensuring local managers had everything they needed to succeed.

As a result, we were free to do what was needed locally to get the best results – and the results were outstanding. We moved fast and, every year, we grew sales and profits.

We also had a lot of fun doing it.

In many ways, I felt like I was running my own business – except I had a large corporation backing me up. It was the most fun I ever had working as a leader in a global company.

Unfortunately, good things never last.

Barnevik eventually retired, and his replacements believed that the company had too many maverick business leaders around the world.

They felt the company needed to have a more uniform approach, so they hired more and more people on staff to coordinate this standardization. Eventually, what was once a small team at headquarters focused on supporting local businesses, became an army of bureaucrats working to control every aspect of the company.

Over the years, the company eventually stripped most of the authority from local business managers. Instead, most decisions went through the bureaucrats.

As a result of the weight of this bureaucracy, decision-making slowed down, and our growth stalled as well.

Under the weight of bureaucracy, decision-making slows down, and growth stalls as well. Click To Tweet

Faceless bureaucrats without any responsibility for the financial performance of local businesses were now in charge. They had all the authority and no accountability. The company still held local managers responsible for the financial results, but they had little power to implement the ideas to make it happen.

What was once fun became a futile battle of rules and red tape.

Frustrated, I eventually moved to another global business only to discover that the situation was even worse. There, local managers had no authority.

Frustration and apathy sat like a dark cloud over employees. Most local managers had given up trying to make things better. The faceless bureaucrats were in charge, and local managers could do nothing to change the situation. Most managers felt like they were strapped into a car with no steering wheel – they had no control.

It was the most depressing place I had ever worked.

That experience caused me to leave corporate life to start my own business.

As an entrepreneur, I once again attained the right balance of authority and responsibility. I had complete control of my business, made quick decisions, and my sales multiplied.

I also learned to have fun again.

How does this relate to your leadership journey?

It should be a reminder of your role as a leader. It’s not your job to create a bureaucracy to control every aspect of your employees’ lives. Your job is to empower your people to take action to accomplish the goals of the company.

A leader's job is to empower people to take action to accomplish the goals of the company. Click To Tweet

People enjoy freedom, and they will thrive when not faced with the crushing weight of bureaucratic processes.

Our job as leaders is to communicate the goal, establish the ground rules, and ensure our people have everything they need to succeed.

When you remove the weight of bureaucracy, your team will move faster, resulting in quicker results.

When faced with the decision to add layers of red tape, ask yourself, what would Percy do?

In my bestselling leadership book, All in the Same Boat, I tell more stories of what it was like working for a leader like Percy Barnevik.

[Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash]