Gut Check: Have Your Followers Decided That You Are Their Leader?

December 2, 2015 Vince Molinaro

Gut Check: Have Your Followers Decided That You Are Their Leader?

Last week, Lou Holtz was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal during the CEO council conference on his secrets for effective leadership.

As one of US college football’s most successful coaches, Holtz is qualified to talk about this subject. In fact, he’s the only college football coach to lead six different colleges to bowl games, and the only coach to lead four different programs to a Top 20 ranking.

In his interview with Wall Street Journal Bureau Chief Gerald Seib, Holtz said that before the news conference where he was to be unveiled as the new head coach of the University of Notre Dame, the then president of the college, Father Hesburgh, took him aside to impart a nugget of wisdom. “ ‘I’m going to announce to the world that Lou Holtz is head coach at Notre Dame,’ ” Holtz recalled Hesburgh saying to him. “ ‘What I cannot do is, I cannot name you the leader. The players will determine if you’re a leader.’ ”

That one line accurately describes a secret of leadership that so many leaders miss on their rise up the corporate ladder: getting a job as a leader does not necessarily make you a leader. That comes when your people begin to see you as a leader.

This was made clearly apparent to me a few years ago when I was chatting with one of my team members.  He was keen to step up and be considered for a leadership role.

He had all the right ingredients.  He did great work with our clients. He was collaborative and supportive of others on the team. He had the motivation to do more and make our business even more successful.

I wanted to make the conversation more granular so I asked him what would be the specific things he could see doing that would position him more as a leader?

He thought about his answer and provided several clear points of what he would do. It was a lot of ‘I would do this,’ or ‘I would do that.’

I listened to his answers, and then told him I would know that he had arrived as a leader not so much by what he did, but rather how our team viewed him and related to him.  Did they see him as a leader? Would his words carry weight with the team? Would the group willingly, enthusiastically carry out his direction?

I explained that there are some people who are leaders in title only. When it comes to their actual performance, they fail on many of the basic duties and accountabilities seen among many great leaders.

How can you spot a leader like this? He or she will not be seen or treated like a leader by their teams.

In my book, The Leadership Contract, I argue that leadership is a decision. You have to decide to define yourself as a leader. In my experience, I’ve also learned that those you lead also have to make a decision about whether to follow you or not. They must decide whether they can give you their full support and discretionary effort.

Just having a team that follows your orders is not evidence that you have arrived as a leader. You need to earn the trust and respect of your team so that they are loyal and compliant. That is where you will find the discretionary effort and commitment to success that makes everyone a winner.

This week’s gut check asks: Have your followers decided that you are their leader?

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