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"To Lead Is To Follow"

I first ran across these words as a Citadel cadet. Now those who know of my days at El Cid know that I was far from a model cadet. I spent a lot of time just beating or ignoring the system. Part of it were some significant issues going on in my personal life that to this day I have a hard time sharing. And part of it was that was where the intellectual challenge was. Or so I thought. But as much as I tried to beat the system, one area I paid careful attention to was anything to do with leadership because I was certain I would pursue a 20 year career as an Air Force officer. And I knew for the good of the men and women appointed underneath me, I needed to be the best leader I could be. I can thank my father, a retired Marine GySgt for instilling that belief in me.

The basic concept which is usually cited for this saying is that to be a good leader, you've got to be one who understands part of your job is to take care of your troops. Yes, the mission is always first. But if you don't take care of the people who serve with you, there won't be anyone around to help you accomplish said mission. The examples my father gave me were the stories of gloryhounds from Viet Nam who would get their troops killed obtaining some objective when there was a sounder way to get the mission done. But this saying goes beyond just keeping your troops from getting killed. It also means seeing and trying to provide for their needs. For instance, one example we were given was that if you had time to explain the why, you did. That way your troops built up a trust in you that when you didn't have time, they executed, believing you had the best interest of the mission and them in your heart. But it also meant helping each person be better. Not only be better from the job perspective, but from the overall person perspective. You encouraged them as they pursued education opportunities like college, off-duty endeavors like volunteering, and putting the time in to try and make their family life (always hard in the military) work.

That's why I smiled when I read a Rajesh Setty post from a couple of years ago. Part of "to lead is to follow" is also understanding that you need to be able to follow in order to be able to properly lead. This is a facet The Citadel taught. After all, looking at it from just a Citadel TO&E, the platoon commander reports to the company commander. The company commander reports to the battalion commander. And the battalion commander reports to the regimental commander. The regimental commander is ultimately responsible to the administration at The Citadel. So everyone in a position of authority and leadership is a follower of someone in a higher position of authority and leadership. If you're not a good follower, you're not going to be able to take their orders and "make it your own." And this is the area I struggled with the most at The Citadel.

So what does this have to do with IT or databases? Quite simply, a lot of IT folks are intelligent, driven people. They are "hard chargers" who are more than capable of thinking on their own. A lot of our conflicts come about because we're wanting to be leaders, to have it done our way, and we think we can do it better than the current plan. Maybe that's true. But if we're always proposing the new and improved plan, we're not executing on any plan. And our projects stall and folks get upset and money and time and resources get wasted. So sometimes in order to lead, we must follow. We must step back, assess the plan in place and if it's good enough, we execute. If it isn't, we raise our concerns. If we're told to make it happen anyway, then we face a choice. We either find a new place of employment or we execute the plan. In the military that first option isn't available. But in a civilian job it is.

One caution, though. We don't know it all. And sometimes the person telling us to execute despite our objections knows more than we do. That goes back to the first part of "to lead is to follow." Has that person proven he or she is worth our trust? "To lead is to follow" is a double-edged sword. If we realize the implications of the saying whether we are the leader or the follower, our projects and our work efforts should be smoother.


K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.


Posted by Steve Jones on 20 October 2008

Excellent and thanks. I completely agree. If you can, raise the issues, make your argument, sway someone, but if they say "go", you go.

Posted by Stephanie J Brown on 26 October 2008

I agree, it comes down to trusting your leaders.  Sometimes that trust gets broken - like when you raise the issues, are told to "do it anyway", you follow thru and make it work as well as possible (given the circumstances), and then when it doesn't meet expectations your leader comes back and says it's your fault for not telling them about the issues.  Up until that experience, I'd had great respect for the leaders in my company.  If I get another of those projects where they ignore sound business practices, I won't bother sticking around to get blamed - I don't trust the leaders to take responsibility for their actions and decisions.  In my book, to be a leader requires that you take responsibility for your own mistakes - you don't try to foist them off on an underling or find some other scapegoat.  By taking responsibility, you open the path to learning to be better at what you do; by avoiding responsibility, you close yourself off from that learning.

Posted by Ian Massi on 27 October 2008

Excellent post!  The last place I worked didn't have any leaders in the management positions so anyone trying to fill that vaccuum would be reprimanded.  Luckily I wasn't in the military so I found a better job with a solid leader at the helm.

Posted by Anonymous on 10 February 2009

This was the brainchild of Mike Walsh , who asked, "What do you wish you knew when you were starting

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