Lead, Follow or Get out of the way

You have heard this phrase before, I’m sure. You may even have said it yourself, or at least thought it… I admit that I’ve said it, and thought it several times when a younger, more inexperienced manager (politics tends to push me into that thinking still… sigh).

I do try to catch myself now, and bite my lip if necessary! At work I go for even better: I will rephrase LFOGOOTW to give people a more welcoming “we” choice, to deliberately eliminate the GOOTW sarcasm. When I sense my team has reached a degree of clarity with an issue, I ask, “would you like to lead this one, or work within your followership?” genuinely feeling that both choices have merit, just different energies, and that each person can make each choice relative to the variables at hand.

Replace innuendo with Culture-building

I’m not the only one who feels that way; it’s in our culture. Our team has talked about followership enough to know that Following is NOT a Passive Activity. Following can often go the What/How way of the managing verb (as compared to the Why/When leading verb), a great thing.

As for “…or get out of the way,” that’s not one of our options. We can’t afford bench-warming (and nobody likes it).

The trick to timing the question of lead or follow, is one of sensing people are ready for action, and feeling we’ve talked about it quite enough — at least in that stage of the project. The “lead or follow?” question turns people loose when both choices have been established as good choices in a workplace culture. Neither has that cynical dig in it (“if not, get out of the way.”) which is very un-inclusive (i.e. un-Kākou).

join the QuEuE by Maldita la hora on Flickr
join the QuEuE by Maldita la hora on Flickr

However is that enough?

In Managing with Aloha cultures, we do go for the “and” instead of the “either/or.” LFOGOOTW is a good case in point with advocating the “and” embrace, for as Dan points out in the comments, “lead, follow, or get out of the way oversimplifies things a bit.”

I remember a wonderful comment from Stephanie when we had talked about the LFOGOOTW phrase within the value-mapping we’d been doing at MWA Coaching, with the value set of Alaka‘i, Kākou, and Lōkahi:

The more I read, the more apparent it becomes that for as long as I can remember, I have been looking for others to provide me with clear answers rather than developing them on my own. In fact, I am truly grateful to the gentleman who inspired [this conversation string on “Lead, Follow, or Get out of the way.”] since I often get stuck thinking about mantras as law.

So what does this have to do with leadership? For me, the lead or follow mentality seems limiting. Much like in partnerships, where only two people are involved, it’s about taking turns. In other words, it’s about being a team-player, just like you expressed [with the value of Lōkahi]. The best leaders understand this and know when to stand down.

In an environment where all members are respectful the leader rises to the occasion with ease. Nurturing an environment that enables every member to shine is not always easy, but that is certainly my goal.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with looking to others for help with answers; in fact, learning from their lessons is quite wise. And taking turns can help — don’t think it simplistic and dismiss it. We seldom work alone or in a vacuum, and collaborative and synergistic work is what great teams engage in and thrill to.

And I love what Steph had observed, that “In an environment where all members are respectful the leader rises to the occasion with ease.” The goal she had to nurture such an environment was outstanding — truly Kākou behavior with that Ho‘ohanohano demeanor of respect.

I think about it again today (thus this post) as I wonder what direction the nascent #Occupy movement will start to take.

“Rise to the occasion” with Lōkahi

How do we allow leaders to rise to the occasion with ease as Steph says, while we continue to shape our own more progressive and proactive behavior?

Let’s revisit the Lōkahi connection: Lōkahi is the value of collaboration, harmony and unity. The pairing of Kākou and Lōkahi are the MWA values of teamwork. They are the value-drivers of the followers that leaders dream of inspiring, and having on their team.

From Managing with Aloha, under a section heading called “the role of the individual” (hardcover page 107);

“Most of the Hawaiian values really speak to personal endeavors, and the concept that all starts from within you. We are responsible for our own attitudes, our own choices, our own happiness and our own success. While Lōkahi speaks to the behavior of people within a group, its core assumption is that the group’s effectiveness comes from the choices made by the individuals within it.”

Lōkahi asks these questions: Are you a bystander or are you truly engaged? Does your reach include the entire team, and are you being cooperative? Do you seek to understand everyone’s opinion while sharing your own? Are you looking for mutually beneficial agreement or are you settling for negotiation or compromise? Do you understand the role of every person, and are you respectful of their participation and involvement? Are you fulfilling your own role and responsibility, so that you make the contribution that is expected of you? Are you supportive and positive?”

In other words, are you a team player? Will you be the best you can be on the team that your leader of choice champions? When called upon to do so, will you be able to take your turn leading too, building upon the involvement you have had all along?

Lasting movements (progress) requires clear, directional Change

In that conversation string I pulled Steph’s comment from, we’d reconvened to talk story about self-leadership in our value-mapping process. We spoke of how our leadership vocabulary could be sharpened, and thus strengthened as “Language of Intention” (MWA Key 5).

Then we asked each other, “What is self-leadership?” and tried to focus in on it in regard to effecting change. I recall it now (and looked up our conversation archive), because of all the dissatisfaction in current affairs — something’s got to give, and people say they want change: What will it be, and how will it happen?

Nothing changes until something shifts or moves. Self-leadership is what gets us to move.

Determination - Barrel Racing - Parada del Sol Rodeo
Determination - Barrel Racing - Parada del Sol Rodeo by Alan English on Flickr

For the most part, I like change because it is vibrant and alive; it defies stagnation. I say ‘for the most part’ because there are times for calm and for stillness, but those are times for the reflection which leads to rejuvenation, and for fortifying our energies for the next leaps of movement.

That’s because nothing changes until someONE shifts or moves.

That someone is the self-led, the person who chooses self-leadership first, so they need never depend on the leadership of another to free them from any stagnation or inertia; they do so for themselves. That someone may emerge to be the leader, or one of them, but for the time being they have their own work to do.

The person who chooses self-leadership as their first experience, can then empathize with the needs of others they will eventually ask to join in, or to follow their lead. Often they need not ask; it just happens because leadership is so attractive and compelling. It’s magnetic and contageous.

The self-leadership of the value of Alaka‘i is about strong, self-impelling initiative.

It is the ability to self-energize so you always have reserves to call upon when you need them.

It is the ability to self-motivate, for motivation is an inside-job: If we’re completely honest, we will admit that no one can motivate us; we must do so for ourselves.

Self-leadership is a quest for learning more about what is possible. Therefore, there is an impatience and sense of urgency about self-leadership, for those who quest know that something bigger and better exists to be discovered or created.

The self-led have the burning desire to be the one who will do that discovering or creating.

Is that the person you are, or the person you hope to be?

I do believe that at some point in everyone’s life, they can answer, “Yes.” As Steph helped us see, it becomes our turn.

Alaka‘i may not be the most consistently called-upon value that we choose when it comes to our personal values, but I do believe it may be one that we universally share much more than others. We each have it: It’s more a question of when we choose to invoke this value, and about which of our passions, and about whether that passion is one we champion or choose another leader for.


Postscript: You will notice that the 1st few comments below are from August of 2009: This is a refreshing and reframing of this post when originally published then. I am doing what I encourage you to do in workplace culture-building: Repeat what you stand for to keep your language of intention alive and well. Refresh it and reframe it when necessary, and you keep it Kākou too – not everyone will have heard it the first time (or will have retained it). If it is important, put it back on stage: Alaka‘i ABCs: What do you stand for?

So I invite you to weigh in again: Let’s talk story.

If you are newly joining us, Alaka‘i was subject of the posting before this one too: Alaka‘i Leadership, Chiefs and Indians. Sections include:

  • Leadership delivers an affirmation of our values
  • What do we do, when leadership fails us?
  • Alaka‘i Leadership is a concept of abundance


  1. says

    Well, I am certainly interested in this discussion, Rosa, and the best leaders I know have been, too.

    Here’s how I define self-leadership: if leading others is a moment when a person steps into awkward or uncomfortable space with others in order to create positive change, then leading self means taking a step into awkward or uncomfortable inner space , me with me space, in order to achieve the same result.

    We have all experienced such times. Personally, they usually represent a moment of self-confrontation that tests my capacity to look squarely at myself with honesty and compassion, to see what is. Second, such moments typically require some form of change on my part. So first, looking, and then, changing.

    I’ve always felt “lead, follow, or get out of the way” oversimplifies things a bit. It may be real world, but the real world is chock full of negative beliefs about people and this phrase can subtly reinforce those beliefs. In turn, such assumptions can lead to “us versus them” distinctions (e.g., we are “accountable,” they are “lazy” or inept) and this simulates leadership only by identifying a common enemy.

    I like to remember Pogo, the comic-strip source, I believe, of the line “We have met the enemy and he is us.” This is why self-leadership is not a luxury, but a necessity. Without it, we are doomed to another self- word: self-deception.

    • Rosa Say says

      I like your definition Dan, very much so, for the scenario you describe appeals to me, and it is indeed an occurrence we all recognize – as our awareness of it grows, we realize it happens many times each day.

      In comparison, that parade of “self” words can either be too big to wrap our arms around (like self-esteem and self-awareness), or can miss the mark because they focus on the second part instead of the first (self-discipline, self-motivation, self-development). Funny how your “self-confrontation” seemed to be in a category all its own to me.

      Understand too what you mean about the phrase, “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” It does reflect back on the speaker for me at first, for my immediate impulse is to throw it back and ask, “Which of those three choices would be the one you value most right now, in this instance?”

  2. says

    Yes, great question Rosa because it moves the conversation from premature closure to a neutral inquiry. If I answer with any of the three alternatives (lead, follow, or get out of the way), you could naturally follow up with such questions as, “Why is that choice of most value to you and what does it actually mean for you in this circumstance?” It’s a wonderful post, Rosa. Really got me thinking about this often heard but unexplained phrase — which it is easy to assume we understand.

    • Rosa Say says

      I am chuckling a bit at the benefit of the doubt you so generously give me Dan, for I would probably not be that neutral in my inquiry!

      The contrarian shifting of “often heard but unexplained phrase(s)” has become a bit of a game for me which started way back when I decided that “work” would cease to be thought of as a 4-letter word in any workplace I managed – so to be more accurate, I do delight in taking anything with a normally (or conventionally) negative connotation and getting it to be more positive – or at the very least, more useful.

      This was another recent one (a favorite!): “What’s in it for me?” is a Self-Leadership Question

      Dan, I so, so love having conversations with you! Thank you for stopping by today :-)

  3. says

    Yes, I like the conversation, too, Rosa. Loved the link to WIIFM. And I do like that emphasis on what is useful. Going back to Lead, Follow, or Get out of the Way (LFOGOOTW), the idea that I might say, “Well, actually it’s time for me to follow now,” or “This is the point where I need to get out of the way,” could, under the right circumstances, actually transform and honor these two very legitimate alternatives. It turns out that slowing down to examine such unexplained phrases (Touchy-Feely is one of my favorites) turns out to be not only useful but rather sly fun, as well.

    Best to you!

    • Rosa Say says

      Thank you for giving me that link Dan, for I missed reading that one, and as I just tweeted, I am “finding it one of those posts I need to bookmark, spend time with.” I can truly empathize with you and the response you give when you get a “touchy-feely” type inquiry about presentations.

      I have another draft in process about following and the notion of “followership” to explore when we all might say, “Well, actually it’s time for me to follow now.” Digging into LFOGOOTW is turning out to reveal quite a bit of fullness!