Follow the Leader? How a simple game identifies obstacles to leadership

Initially posted on April 15, 2016. For more information visit kirkrandazzo.com


kids playing follow the leader

Ever watch a group of children play ‘follow the leader’? Each one cannot wait to take a turn as the ‘leader’. And, when the opportunity finally comes, they try to figure out the craziest and most fun thing to do. Then, as they wait for another turn, each child starts bubbling with suppressed energy until they get the chance to lead again.

Now, have you ever watched adults play the same game? When I conduct leadership workshops, I often ask members of the audience to come forward and play this game. Usually, I get about 4-5 people to volunteer in about 30 seconds. Then, when they come forward and I announce we’re playing ‘follow the leader’ they inevitably freeze and just stand in a straight line. When I ask what’s wrong, someone responds with the question: “who is the leader?”

adults standing in line

Believe it or not, this simple game that many (most) of us played as kids unlocks several secrets about leadership. More specifically, this game identifies some of the major obstacles preventing the average person from becoming a more effective leader. So let’s explore these obstacles and hopefully gain a better understanding of how we might overcome them.

First, recognize that finding individuals interested in leading is not very difficult, just like finding volunteers to play ‘follow the leader’ is not difficult. Most people are simply waiting for someone to ask them to help lead on something specific, such as a project or group activity. These people may not proactively offer themselves – usually to avoid stepping on someone else’s toes. However, if asked to lead they will eagerly step up and try to contribute.

Yet, simply saying ‘yes’ when someone asks is often not enough to automatically become a successful leader. We need to think about what comes next and develop some kind of plan to achieve that specific outcome. Without thinking about the next step, we typically stand still (similar to adults playing ‘follow the leader’) until someone else tells us what to do. And, if we are waiting for someone else to tell us what to do, we’re not really exercising our own leadership. So, thinking about next steps (goals, a vision, etc.) is the second obstacle that limits our leadership effectiveness.

Finally, in order to successfully lead others we must take the initiative. If we wait until someone else answers the “who is the leader?” question then we are not taking the initiative to lead. But, taking the initiative is not an easy thing. Doing so immediately places a target on us, and this kind of attention makes most individuals extremely uncomfortable. Why? Well, for some it is a fear of making a mistake and being viewed by the rest of the team as a failure. For others, it’s the exact opposite – it’s the fear of being successful because that may bring additional responsibilities that we don’t want. Regardless, whether it’s a fear of failure or a fear of success, that fear paralyzes most individuals and prevents them for taking the initiative and seizing on opportunities to lead. Therefore, if we want to become more effective leaders, we must get out of our individual zones of comfort and figure out how to deal with the additional scrutiny, judgment, and potential criticism. Leading is not a comfortable enterprise and the sooner we recognize that fact the easier it will be to deal with our discomfort.

When was the last time you played ‘follow the leader’? Did you chomp at the bit like a little kid until it was your turn, or did you simply wait in line and look around to see if someone else stepped forward to take the initiative? When it was your turn, did you try something completely outrageous and crazy, or did you play things safe (and boring) and walk around in a circle? The most effective leaders are not content to ‘play the game’ simply by standing in line. Rather, when it’s time for their turn, they take the initiative and show us something we’ve never seen before. Sometimes the risk fails miserably and they learn lessons to apply next time. Sometimes the risk produces something magical. Regardless of the outcome, the effective leader can never be criticized for not trying. He or she is like the child waiting for his/her turn to lead again in order to try something new.

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Author: Kirk Randazzo

I am a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Carolina Leadership Initiative at the University of South Carolina. I also conduct public presentations on a variety of aspects related to leadership, conflict management, and public speaking.

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