How to Know When to Lead, and When to Follow

Joe Weinlick
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Learning when to lead and when to follow is one of the most important parts of becoming a manager. Many people start their first management position understanding they are responsible for leading a group of people. However, not everyone truly understands that becoming a manager also means learning to follow others, including their own direct reports.

Knowing when to lead seems like an easy concept on the surface but is actually very difficult in practice. There is much more to leadership than simply setting out a series of goals and asking a team of direct reports to achieve them. A good manager needs to know how to motivate team members, how to guide organizational change within a team and how to break down a large goal into a series of steps.

Even learning when and how to provide feedback is an important part of knowing when to lead. Providing negative feedback at the wrong time, such as in front of other team members, often lowers motivation and morale. Knowing how to give important feedback at the right time and in a way that is motivating to the employee is a crucial part of leadership.

Another important part of leadership is knowing when to step aside. Nobody likes a micromanager, but learning when to follow is more complicated than simply avoiding micromanagement. It also means taking time to listen to team members' suggestions, making room for direct reports' critical feedback and learning how to employ a team's ideas even when they are different from the original plan.

A manager who knows both how to lead and how to follow understands that each direct report or team member has much to contribute to the overall project or goal. This manager knows when to lead, but also knows when to step aside and let another team member take a leadership role. A team where everyone's thoughts and expertise are shared runs much more smoothly than a team where only one person is allowed to take charge.

There is one more reason why a manager needs to learn both when to lead and when to let direct reports take the lead. Part of a manager's job is training and mentoring future managers. The best managers foster leadership and growth among team members, and encourage each direct report to contribute to his full potential. This often means giving other people a chance to lead while still maintaining executive control of the project or team.

The best managers provide guidance and leadership in a way that helps team members achieve objectives and goals while simultaneously giving each individual employee a chance to develop leadership skills of his own. Learning when to lead is a key part of becoming a manager, but knowing how to follow is an essential skill as well.

(Photo courtesy of Ambro at


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