Women in leadership positions in credit unions – Know when to lead and when to follow


Has this happened to you? You are conducting business as you always have—listening, caring, and being empathetic—when you learn there is a special name for what you do every day? A phrase that, soon thereafter, you hear being used seemingly everywhere? That was my introduction to the term “servant leadership” and although the principles of servant leadership are timeless, it was seven or so years ago that I first heard the now ubiquitous term. I was in a one-on-one meeting with someone I met at a networking event. She was telling me how she just revamped her business because she decided she wanted to be a servant-leader. I thought she was speaking another language and asked her what that was. She was shocked I didn’t know what she was referring to, and she began to counsel me on what it meant to serve others.  

I started to giggle and told her I have done that my entire life. I just didn’t know it had a special name. After that brief encounter, maybe because I giggled at the term, it suddenly seemed that every other person was now labeling themselves as a servant-leader.

I had a conversation about this with my husband, who I refer to as The Colonel. As a retired Air Force Colonel, servant leadership is a big part of who he is. He told me that true leaders always serve others. In the military, his job was to develop and take care of his team emotionally, professionally, personally, and physically. He also had to make sure he steered his team away from unnecessary risk. As the person in charge, he had to develop emerging leaders who ultimately would surpass his skills and fill his place.

This is something that we as leaders do all the time … don’t we? If we don’t, we should.  There is a big difference between leaders and managers. As a manager you manage things, and as a leader you lead people.  

Now the other side of leadership is another word that I was certain was one that Yogi Berra made up…followership. It is the ability to take direction well, be part of a team, and deliver what is expected of you. Here is something to ponder, “How well the followers follow is just as important for success as how well the leaders lead.”

It is easy to enjoy praise for great leadership. But how would you feel if someone said you were an excellent follower? Can you be both a great leader and a great follower? Absolutely, depending on the situation. Can you be both a weak leader and a weak follower? This answer to this is also yes, depending on the situation.

What are some qualities of a good follower? Expect to see similarities between a good follower and a good leader.

  1. The ability to take direction while also exercising good judgment-There is a difference between following the leader even if you don’t fully agree with their approach versus blindly following if you are asked to do something illegal or unethical.
  2. A strong work ethic-You likely will find it difficult to be a good follower if you are not a strong worker.
  3. Discretion-Knowing when not to speak can be as important as knowing when to speak. Certain situations may arise wherein keeping things confidential is important.
  4. Loyalty-Good followers respect their obligations and have a strong allegiance to their leader and their team.
  5. Ego in check-Good followers keep their egos in check. They are team players and realize it is not all about them.

While some may think followership lies in the shadow of leadership, it is equally important. There are no leaders without followers. We all know that businesses are only as good as their leadership, but leadership depends on great followership as well.

When I worked in the corporate world of insurance, I was both a leader and a follower. I led my fellow agents by providing sales training and coaching. I also reported to a leader who was in charge of all training.

Having worked my way up from sales, I had tremendous creditability. Each day I did my best to model integrity and character as I helped the agents grow. I knew my strengths, and I engaged others to assist in areas where I was weaker. I had the experience the agents hungered for. I had not only been there and done that, I bought the T-shirt as well, and I shared what I learned with them.

Great leaders tend to attract great followers. I am most inclined to be led by someone with character, who acknowledges their strengths and makes accommodations for their weaknesses, who is committed to my growth, and who has the experience, skills, and vision to guide me.

People do not just follow anyone. As a leader, you must give them a good reason to follow you. Many times people are placed into leadership roles and expect their teams will follow them simply because they have the title. It does not work that way—at least not with deep, lasting success.

Leadership is as much about being the person that people want to follow, as it is about knowing where the team is headed.  

As former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said, “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”



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