04/18/2012 03:48 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2012

Follow Any Leader

A wise man once told me:

It is no disgrace to be a follower. On the other hand, it is no credit to remain a follower. Most great leaders began in the capacity of followers. They became great leaders because they were intelligent followers. With few exceptions, the man who cannot follow a leader intelligently, cannot become an efficient leader. The man who can follow a leader most efficiently, is usually the man who develops into leadership most rapidly. An intelligent follower has many advantages, among them the opportunity to acquire knowledge from his leader.

This is painfully clear to me when I am working with someone who has been pegged a "hi-po" (high potential) manager. Most of the time, they have a pedigreed MBA and a track record of getting things done (often through their individual determination). Combine this with a native intellect and it's difficult to argue with the assessment of their potential. However, what goes unasked and unanswered in the sparkle of their abilities is, "what has he or she learned about leading as they have followed?" Here's why this is a critical element in forming a great leader.

There is a huge difference in how leadership is given and how leadership is received. It is a question of perspective. Some people delude themselves into criticizing their leaders for missteps and indecisiveness that they assure themselves they will never fall prey to once in the position. They don't learn to appreciate the messiness of the playing field between leader and follower. If you fail to gain a perspective on leadership from 180 degrees - leadership received - you will be hard pressed to learn first hand what works and doesn't work when it comes to motivating and challenging others.

A few of my clients are early in their careers and seem to base their leadership approach on what they learned in business school or through books. What they were taught is not wrong, it's simply they can't appreciate that leadership is in the exchange, not the giving. And it will always be messy, not matter how clear the direction, compelling the vision, or transparent the strategy. What I hope they learn one day, sooner rather than later, is to assume the mantle of leader with a fair dose of humility and empathy. Being an intelligent follower is the first step.