Being Ahead Does Not Make You a Leader

Insight #299

The risk in not scrutinizing your leader’s leadership experience.

During one competitive solo yacht race, I surprised myself by being in the lead. Not just ahead of the other competitors, but way out in front. I almost panicked, because I had not studied the course. Why should I have? I always followed the leaders. They showed me which buoy to aim for.

But now I was the leader, the one being followed, the one who supposedly knew which buoy to tack for.

Of course, this was no ordinary leader-follower situation. The yachtsmen behind me weren’t following me. I was at the head, but definitely not their leader. They were plotting their own course, determined to relieve me of my leadership position.

Those hostile followers on my stern did not turn me against the followers I encountered in my business career. I approached every leadership assignment with the assumption that I had their goodwill. But I accepted the reality that they had the right to scrutinize me as I plotted our course. And that their scrutiny would keep us on track.

I also assumed there was at least one follower plotting his or her own ‘what-if’ course… to take my lead if I tripped or faltered. That kept me honest, not hostile.

That yacht race? I did not hold on to the lead. After all, I was a mere teenager up against experienced yachtsmen. I kept the lead until the very last leg, when the light breeze turned into a gale. That’s when nine seasoned sailors, who could trim and tack in a gale, sailed past me.

But that’s leadership for you. Fairly plain sailing until an unexpected headwind demands prior experience.

Welcome to my side of the nonsense divide.

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