07/25/2014 08:22 am ET | Updated Mar 12, 2015

The Surprising Skill Successful People Have In Common (And How To Cultivate It)

Hye Jin Chung


Most of us believe that leadership is the key to success. But, says Martha Beck, there's a lot to be said for taking a backseat.

By Martha Beck

While I was finishing my education back in the Pleistocene era, I got a job teaching at an international management school. I was happy, but also terrified: My 90-plus students were about 10 minutes younger than I was and much more experienced in real-world business. There was simply no way I could lead these people to better managerial skills. So I chose another option: I decided to follow them. I found a shoe box, cut a slit in the top, and wrote FEEDBACK AND RECOMMENDATIONS on the side. Then I took the box to class.

"Your tuition pays my salary," I told my students. "I work for you. As your subordinate, I'll do the best I can, but as my leaders, you can help me do better." I asked them to write down any negative feedback they might have and slip their comments into the box anonymously (to avoid fear of being penalized). All I asked was that with every negative comment they also include a suggestion about how I could improve.

My colleagues were horrified by this approach. "You'll lose control of the classroom!" one of them said. "They'll destroy you!" I handled his advice just as I did my feedback-box suggestions: by presenting it to my students and asking what they thought. They pointed out that for a teacher -- as for a manager or any other kind of leader -- suppressing negative feedback alienates people and prohibits communication of the very information necessary to improve. We had a memorable discussion about the benefits to be found in following, and it went a little something like this.

Why Following Is Good for You

"All streams flow to the sea because it lies below them," wrote the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. If you want to lead people, he goes on to say, you must be willing to follow them. This flies in the face of our society's general consensus, which holds that the world is a landscape of pyramids. Whether your pyramid is a family, a school, a company, or any other social structure, the goal is to get to the top and enjoy the power and privilege of leadership. Followership is often seen as the default role of losers, wimps, and also-rans.

If you love clawing your way up social pyramids, by all means, hang on to this view of reality. But if you're into things like, oh, I don't know, happy relationships and enjoyable work, you might want to note that many highly functional human systems are less like pyramids than like calm seas: Roles are as fluid as water, and the hierarchy of personal worth is flat, with every person valued equally. In systems like these, each person leads in situations where he or she is most capable, but just as willingly follows in others.

For example, you may be the legal head of your household, but when you're baffled by a social networking app, it's your teenager who leads you to clarity. You're technically in charge of your plumber and your accountant, but you probably follow their advice. Your circle of friends may look to one person to lead when they're choosing a restaurant and to another when they want fashion pointers. Being willing to follow, as well as to lead, is how we maximize our collective strengths.

When Not to Follow

All this talk of fluid leadership and humble following sounds just lovely -- if you've never had a horrible boss, a domineering parent, or an abusive partner. These are the folks who love power pyramids, who never, ever follow anyone below them. They enjoy categorizing people as superiors (who get to lead, no matter what) and inferiors (who must follow, no matter what). They are willing to do anything they can to claim dominance. These are not people you should follow.

Economist Albert Hirschman wrote that when followers feel dissatisfied, they have two options: communicate discontent in the hope of creating change, or refuse to participate. Expressing our discontent and suggesting a better way -- the option I gave my students with my feedback-box system -- is definitely worth a try. If that doesn't work, we may have to disobey -- in other words, leave that tyrant behind.

When Lao Tzu referred to those streams, he was describing the flow of energy that creates balance and harmony, including our own feelings of inner tranquillity. Doing whatever brings us the most inner peace is how we align ourselves with this benevolent power.

I thought the power of harmony was metaphorical until I studied a Japanese martial art called aikido, or "the way of the harmonious spirit." An aikido master's objective is not to crush opponents, but to stay aligned with inner calm. You might think that this peaceful philosophy would create the fighting prowess of a geranium. Oh, how wrong you'd be. When you spar with an expert aikido practitioner (I've tried it), you don't really see what's coming; you just wake up on the floor. And when you practice aikido, you soon discover that finding a peaceful energy within yourself can give you strength you never knew you had.

I haven't practiced martial arts for years, but I still try to follow the harmonious energy in myself and my environment. When I'm frustrated by politicians, unsure of an expert's advice, or coaching a client through dark feelings like rage or fear, I don't blindly follow their lead. Instead, I focus on the most peaceful energy I can find within myself and then try to follow that. Over the decades, I've found that the following steps (pun intended) usually work.

Step 1: Listen with your whole body.

To follow means to focus attention on something until you understand it well, as in "Are you following my argument?" or "I follow politics." This kind of following can tell us whether the situation we're in is just or unjust, safe or dangerous, desirable or repugnant. It will also guide us to our sense of truth in any situation. Listening with full attention -- with the whole body -- is the first step to expert following.

Try it after reading this paragraph. For 30 seconds, drop all thoughts of past and future and open your senses to whatever's happening right here and now. There's no need to think, strive, or react. Just notice what's going on around you and what you're feeling. Follow your breath, your heartbeat, the temperature of your hands. When you do this in the presence of another person, you'll find that you can almost sense what's going on inside them. You'll perceive your own feelings, and theirs, much more clearly -- and no matter what the relationship, this is the ideal state from which to communicate.

Step 2: Declare your observations and ask for disconfirmation.

Full attention paves the way for something that shocks most people in our leadership-obsessed society: voicing your observations, then asking to be told where you're wrong. This is high risk for the ego, but it brings the full power of following to any situation by clarifying communication. Asking where you're wrong, rather than where you're right, puts you in the position of a powerful follower: confident enough to handle negative feedback, humble enough to be corrected.

For example, if you notice that your child seems to be having a bad day, you might say, "Sweetie, it looks like you're feeling frustrated. Am I wrong about that?" In a meeting, if everyone seems annoyed, try the truth: "Hey, you guys seem annoyed. Tell me where I'm wrong." You'll need to use a mild voice that won't be mistaken for sarcasm, because asking to be told where you're wrong is so unheard of in our culture that people may have trouble believing that you're serious. Once they do, though, you'll gain enormous trust, people will be more honest with you, and any group you're in will begin communicating better.

Step 3: Implement feedback.

It's strange: Being very attentive and then asking sincerely to be told where you're wrong almost instantly buys you all sorts of agreement. Most people will say, "No, you're not wrong," and respect you for asking. But when you do get negative feedback, receive it calmly, even gratefully. (If this strikes you as impossible, you may have a very fragile ego or a case of genuine denial. In any case, for you, right now, this advice is wrong. Feel free to resume seeking validation and approval.) Don't simply agree with naysayers -- remember, you're following inner harmony and peace, not other people's whims. If the feedback is true for you, it will have a bracing sting, like alcohol in a cut, but it will also help you see what action to take. If it's wrong, it will feel crushing, confusing, and deadening. If the advice feels right, follow it. If it doesn't, follow your instincts away from it. In both cases, you'll be honing your following skills.

I put this process on the line back in my business-school teaching days, and it worked better than I'd dared to hope. I loved learning from my students, and they seemed happy with me, too. In fact, they were the first people to suggest that I write down my methods for creating a career, a business, a life. That's why I'm writing these words right now. All these years later, I'm still following their advice. And so far they haven't led me anywhere I haven't been happy to follow.

Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One.

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