The Choice to Follow: The Achiever’s Dilemma

As part of my Profiles in Leadership Series, I asked several writers, including Jeff Cann, with different points of view on leadership to pen essays. I began reading Jeff’s blog The Other Stuff in 2017 after his post, “Follow,” was featured by the editors of WordPress Discover. His frank and thoughtful assessment of why he follows writers (or doesn’t) hooked me. Here, coincidentally, he writes of following from a different perspective. In this essay, Jeff considers the rarely discussed, but very real, struggle many of us face–allowing ourselves to be led. 

May 20, 2019

Email from Angela Lawson:

Hi Jeff,
I’m wondering, given our previous conversations about leadership, if you’d like to share your perspective on the topic in a guest post?
Angela

Angela’s been doing her leadership series for a couple of months now. She’s profiled some impressive people and she’s persuaded some accomplished leaders to pen articles here. With Angela’s request, I’m in great company. Since she’s asking, you’re probably thinking my leadership qualities are top notch. Or possibly I’ve excelled in my career and in life because I’ve followed someone truly inspirational.

No and no. I’m writing today because other than with my high school cross country coach, I’ve never felt led. I’ve never been inspired. I think Angela asked for my perspective because after so many great leadership essays, what she needs now is a bad example. Some instruction on what not to do.

Coach Dunston

Since he’s an outlier, let’s go immediately to my cross country coach, Greg Dunston. At the start of my senior year, I felt regretful. My fourth year of high school and nothing so far to show for it. No sports, no clubs, no student government, I didn’t even go to my junior prom. I thought I should do something memorable, so I showed up for cross country practice at the start of the season.

Untrained and physically immature, I was one of the three worst runners on the team. At every meet the three of us battled each other to come in something other than last place. That year, our team vied for the state title. We had some of the best runners in the county. You would expect a walk-on newbie like me to get a minimum of attention. But that wasn’t how our team worked. Coach Dunston, treated us all the same. I received an equal amount of instruction and encouragement as the best runners on the team.

Dunston set no hierarchy, but he set the tone for the team. The runners who won the race hung around the finish line cheering on the losers. We always ran our warm ups and cool downs as a team, we were only separated for the workout. Under Dunston’s leadership, I felt like an integral member of the team, even though my losing times contributed nothing from a scoring standpoint over the entire season. It’s unsurprising that almost forty years later, I’m still a runner. High school cross country was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Leadership is an exchange

Flash forward fifteen years: a midlevel finance manager in a Fortune 500 corporation. Appreciated, but not necessarily liked. For years, I had a golden touch. Hard-working, fast and accurate, my projects were successful and innovative. I caught the attention of the division leaders. Those men (in those days they were always men) who excelled as engineers, climbed the corporate ladder and landed positions as managers, leaders of people. I caught their attention, but never their friendship.

Leadership is an exchange between two willing parties. In Angela’s series, I’ve read about some of the ways that managers work to connect with their employees. What’s been left out of the discussion is the employee’s end of the transaction. Yes, leadership has to be skillfully offered, but it also needs to be willingly received.

When running for Coach Dunston, he offered sound running tips, workouts and strategies, but his lasting leadership quality was encouragement. It was never unnecessarily withheld, but it wasn’t free either. His leadership had strings attached. We had to be receptive, and he expected us to try.

Trying times

People change, thank god, and fortunately I’m one who has. As a young adult (and a not so young adult), I was insufferable. I honed a rebellious streak that didn’t allow me to create great relationships at work. I was disdainful of the “bourgeois suburban corporate culture” I chose for my career. I worked to set myself apart from the other employees, including my supervisors. I thought I was better than them.

I was an effective employee, but I carried a smug aloofness that pushed my bosses away. Their requests were greeted with my eye-rolls and the knowledge that I was going to do it my way, not theirs. That I was achieving my goals only reinforced my resolve to reject leadership. One of my motivating emotions at work was spite. I was proving that I could attain success without sucking up to the boss.

In Angela’s series, I’ve read about some great partnerships. The mentor relationships described are first and foremost, friendships. I’ve read about people getting to know one another by working together towards a common goal. These people are part of a team. As I look back at most of my career, I didn’t feel like a team member. I was always someone working hard to get his job done.

Reflection

Over the years, maybe I’ve worked for some good leaders, or maybe not. I can’t say either way because I never held up my end of the deal. I didn’t want to be led, so I wasn’t. And through that stubbornness, I missed the chance to repeat the feeling of reward I received from running for Dunston on his team.

As a blogger, I spend my evenings delving into my thoughts and motivations. I look at my past and make assessments. Each topic I tackle leaves me more aware of the life I’m living. I want to thank Angela for this opportunity. I’ve learned a lot about leadership (and myself) by writing this essay.

Your turn: Are you willing to be led? Do you see think you’re a good follower? Why or why not?

About Jeff:

Jeff Cann lives, works, and writes in Gettysburg Pennsylvania. His essays and stories have appeared in Like the Wind magazine, the Good Men Project, and other web sites exploring mental health, running and culture. Jeff is married with two teenage children.

His first book of personal essays, Fragments – a memoir, was published in April 2016.  
BAD ASS – My Quest to Become a Back Woods Trail Runner (and other obsessive goals) was published in October 2018 (this eBook is free).

Featured Photo by Farid Askerov on Unsplash

Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

10 thoughts on “The Choice to Follow: The Achiever’s Dilemma”

  1. I still apologize to my 1st few leaders, I was insufferable. I was competitive, a perfectionist and (I’m sure) a pain in the ass to lead. Thankfully, I got in over my head, HAD to ask for help and had a leader who was willing to see past my mistakes. Thank you Kathee Tesija!

    1. A great endorsement for the power of change and a growth mindset. Seems like sometimes we are the victims of our own success. When we fail, we learn. Thank you for sharing your story and for commenting on Jeff’s excellent post.

  2. Jeff, I see so much of myself in your article. As sad as that is to my psyche, I do appreciate the inner unveiling of my professional life as well as a volunteer. My way was always the best way. Though I was efficient I was, needless to say, not well liked or respected. In my 68th year I finally let go of my ego and my perfectionism. (Slow learner.) I’m much happier and more satisfied. And people like me (I think) even when I’m in charge of a project. Thanks for responding Angela’s request.

    1. I’ve settled down now and become much more of a follower than I used to be, and honestly it often leaves me feeling weak. It’s as if by letting others direct me, I’m giving away a piece of myself. But I’m also motivated by keeping the peace and being polite to my coworkers, so I’ve settled into *something*. Writing this for for Angela, I think, will help push me towards a better relationship with my career. I’m changing right now, but I don’t know where I’m going. That probably doesn’t make much sense.

  3. This is a really interesting reflection. Leadership is a partnership (multiple partnerships from the leader’s perspective) and requires commitment from both sides. From the leader’s perspective, the eye-rolling, huffy behaviour is definitely the hardest to deal with – a bit like being a parent to a teenager. Any tips to bring the adult out of the moody teen would be most welcome!

    1. Oh the eye-rolling. I can think of no gesture that boils my blood so much. I can’t speak to what to do with a teen. But, I’d sure like to find out if anyone else has tips!

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