More Important than Knowing When to Lead is Knowing When to Follow

cityBikeRiders“Whether individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves.” —Simon Sinek

By Elizabeth Stincelli, DM


Leadership is not a title or position; it’s power, but not power in the sense that we usually think about power. It is the power to inspire others to do more than they ever thought possible in the best interest of the greater good. On the flipside, anyone can become a follower regardless of the position that they hold. So, why would you ever want to follow if you can lead? The most effective leaders understand that they do not know everything, neither are they always the ones with the greatest influence. Being a great leader requires knowing when to lead and when to follow. Here are four questions to ask yourself to determine whether you should be leading or following.

Can you see beyond the status quo?

While followers are often content with the status quo, leaders challenge the status quo. If you have a strange attachment to doing things the way they have always been done, it might be time for you to follow. If you are not open to change, it might be time for you to follow. Do you have blinders on? Are your biases jading your decision making? Is there someone on your team who thinks outside the box, who is creative, and thinks progressively? If you can’t see beyond the status quo, it might be time for you to follow.

Are you focused?

Leaders often have so many things on their plate that it can be difficult to focus on one specific area. Is there a project that needs more attention than you are able to effectively give? Are you able to focus on developing your people? Is there a problem that needs to be resolved? Are there people on your team who can provide the needed attention to critical areas and issues? If you know you are unable to focus where needed, it might be time for you to follow.

Are you motivating others?

There are times when the formal leader lacks the vision and ability to motivate those around them. This does not make you a failure as a leader; it only leads to failure if you neglect to recognize that it might be time to follow. Are you passionate about a project? Are you motivated from within? Is there someone on your team who is really passionate about the project you are working on? Is their passion contagious and can they motivate others? You can’t fake passion and motivation. If you are unable to motive others, it might be time for you to follow.

Are you confident?

We want those we follow to have confidence in themselves so that we can feel confident in them. But, no one person can be an expert in everything or possess every possible skill. Is there someone on your team who is a subject matter expert? Do they know the industry inside and out? Do they possess skills that you don’t? As a leader, it’s okay to put your confidence and trust in someone who is more qualified for a task or assignment than you are. If you are not confident, it might be time for you to follow.

Know When it’s Time to Follow

Regardless of your position, if you cannot see beyond the status quo; if you can’t focus; if you are unable to motivate others; and if you lack confidence, it may be time for you to follow. When you have a team member who would be better at challenging the status quo, someone who can focus on a project, someone who can motivate others, or someone who has the necessary confidence and competence, it’s time for you to follow. Great leader know when to lead, but even more important, they know when to follow.



© 2016 Elizabeth Stincelli


Liz Stincelli is passionate about recognizing and inspiring the leader in each of us. She is the Founder of Stincelli Advisors where she focuses on helping organizations engage employees and improve organizational culture. Liz holds a Doctor of Management degree with an emphasis on organizational leadership.

Learn more about Liz by visiting her website, and connect with her on Twitter @infinitestin, Google+, and LinkedIn. You can contact her by email at


2 thoughts on “More Important than Knowing When to Lead is Knowing When to Follow”

  1. Very sensible advice. I like the way you portray the varying roles of leader vs follower, illustrating that they can sometimes be interchangeable regardless of title. A little 8 year old boy told me he was going to be the boss at his company because nobody could tell him what to do. I’ve met leaders who operate behind a similar mask. The best leaders transparently acknowledge that to be impacting leaders they must be magnetic followers.

    1. I love your example of the 8 year-old boy, Jane. What a perfect example of the mindset that so many leaders keep for far too long. Thank you!

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