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Here’s a question for you – who captained Australia in the 2011 Rugby World Cup?

Easy enough – it was James Horwill, and even if you spent the Spring of 2011 in total isolation then a quick look on Google would have thrown up the answer (actually 207 million answers, or thereabouts).

Now something a bit more difficult – who was Horwill’s vice-captain? His “right-hand man”?

History always focuses on “the leader”

It is, I confess, a bit of a trick question – there was no vice-captain named for the Australian Rugby World Cup squad, just a “leadership group” (not a concept I endorse at all, by the way) but ask yourself the same question of any team or organisation in which you have even a passing interest and you’ll see a familiar pattern emerge. In sport, just as in almost any endeavour, we shine the spotlight most brightly on “the leader”, and not without good reason – after all, he or she is the focal point of the team, the individual who galvanises them into action, sets the direction and calls the shots.

Or is he? Let’s switch our focus for a moment from the leader to the second most important person in the team – the person I call the Lead Follower.

I’m also going to drop the “he or she” thing – it gets a bit tiresome to write after a while and I’m sure it’s equally tedious to read. Anyway, on with the story…

Sure, we all know that leaders show us the way and quite often they even go first but even when they do that it still means that someone else has to go second and that’s the role of the Lead Follower. He shows the others how to follow the leader by clear example.

Leadership is about taking us from where we are now to somewhere else in the future – it involves change and change is challenging. Leading a team struggling against a significant challenge that seems, for now at least, bigger than them is to invite them to ask some pretty searching questions – questions about themselves, about the task and about their leader.

  • They question if they’re up to the task – if they have the endurance to stay the course or if the challenge will always be bigger than them
  • They question the reason for undertaking the task – if it’s worth the sacrifices demanded of them or if they’d be better off doing something else instead
  • Finally, they question the leader – his reasons for demanding the sacrifices of them and if he has the team or their own interests in mind

Unanswered questions and unquestioned answers

The Lead Follower answers all these questions by demonstrating to the team that he believes in himself, in the task and in the leader and if he believes, then they should too. By clear example, he sets the standard for following the leader and throws down a challenge for the team to join him – two’s company and three’s the start of something big, after all.  Most importantly, the Lead Follower is “one of them” and if he believes he’s up to the challenge then they should be too, if he believes the sacrifice is worth it, then maybe it really is and if he believes the leader knows what he’s doing, then maybe the leader really does!

The relationship with his Lead Follower must be one of the leaders top priorities, if not his absolute priority, especially for a new leader or a new team. It can’t be forced, it must be authentic and based on mutual respect and understanding of each others strengths and weaknesses.

It’s also not a situation where you can simply pick the best players and expect that this relationship will happen automatically – some years ago, I observed a team led by a close friend, with another equally good friend as his second in command, slide down the slippery slope to dysfunction. Both were supremely professional and exceptional men in many regards and both remain my close friends to this day; they simply didn’t appreciate each others strengths and, more importantly, each others weaknesses – the areas where they felt vulnerable and needed assistance. As a consequence, there was no Lead Follower, only an isolated team leader who needed his second-in-command to step up and present a united front to the team and a second-in-command who couldn’t demonstrate how to follow because he felt safer and more confident in the company of the team rather than the leader.

When this relationship is dysfunctional, the team simply cannot perform to its true potential. Trust is lacking, alignment is non-existent and morale plummets. On the other hand, when that relationship is strong, energy within the team surges. The team functions as a single, homogenous unit and something miraculous occurs – as the team becomes stronger, the individuals become stronger because they’re part of something greater them themselves – a virtuous circle in place of a vicious cycle.

Serving as Lead Follower is a very real form of leadership.  Not everyone wants to go first – they may not yet have the desire driving them or the vision to guide them, but they can still lead by going second.

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