Do you lead or follow?

Lisa Thal


I recently had the opportunity to speak at a business event on leadership. We discussed who we thought were great leaders. Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, Gandi, Mother Teresa, our parents, teachers, coaches, and managers were all mentioned. I then asked the attendees if they saw themselves as leaders. Leaders are those that show the way.

We use “lead the way” in many different contexts. Let’s take a look at two of the most common interpretations:

1. Act as a guide in advance of others; go first to show someone the way: he led the team in creating new business.

2. Be first or most prominent in some field or action: She led the way in generating the most revenue in the history of the radio station.

A great debates revolves around the question of whether leaders are born or made. It is apparently easy to track the success of leaders over time and ascribe such success to their schooling or training, but do genetics come into play? This was the great mystery until several years ago when a study published by the University College London. (Tim Elmore, “Are leaders Born or Made?, January 25, 2013). This was the first time researchers could show a link between certain genetic traits and leadership. The research supported that leadership skills can be learned, but it was the first time a scientific study showed that leadership qualities could also be passed down through generations.

When we ask someone to lead the way, we are making the following statements about their character:

We trust them based on their previous performance.
We believe they have our best interests in mind.
We know they’ve gone down this path before, and we are comfortable with their guidance.
We think we can learn from their experience.
We appreciate the fact that they have been successful in the past and we want to gain from those successes.

I remember my first sales opportunity in radio sales. It was a station in Wilmington, Ohio. I can remember how excited I was to begin my career for WSWO and WKFI (We Keep Farmers Informed). I showed up early to work on my first day to be greeted by the sales manager. He kindly invited me into his office to welcome me and he asked, “Do you have any questions? Let me know if you need anything.” I thought to myself, “It’s my first day and I’m not sure what to ask other than where are the restrooms and where is my desk.” At that moment, I realized my success at this point was not going to be led by him. So, I began to watch and ask questions of the top seller at the station. Linda became my guide and showed me the way.

I know that if ever I had the opportunity to lead a team, I would approach managing differently. Years later I was managing a station and was faced with a dip in our ratings and a soft economy. The combination was going to impact our revenue and my sales team’s income. This was a path I didn’t want to take our team down. I needed to create a strategy for my sales team to earn commissions to offset the agency side of their business. I decided to lead the way on generating more direct business, which is not impacted by ratings. The easiest way to do this was to show them how to do it, instead of telling them how to do it. I titled the program, “Help a client and help yourself.” The very reason we got into sales was to help businesses grow and create deep relationships with them. In the meantime, by supporting these businesses, we generate income for ourselves.

We created a list of clients who were not already doing business with us. We did our research and discovered a valid business reason for them to meet with us. From there, we created a creative campaign for them to grow their sales and, more importantly, to support them through a soft economic market. We would meet each day to set our intentions and measure our progress. The team gained confidence, helped each other, earned respect from their clients, and made more money.

What are ways you can serve as an example and lead the way in your current role?

Here are three strategies you can implement today.

Awareness – become aware of your thoughts and actions. Organize your intentions of what you need to do to lead your team or inspire others to lead.
Strategy – create a daily strategy to lead your team or ask to lead a project that could impact your revenue for your company.
Action – inspire others to lead by encouraging them to accept the role with their clients and peers.

John Maxwell sums up leadership for me in saying, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.”

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