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Sunday, 3 December, 2023

Do Mavericks follow leaders?

Do Mavericks follow leaders? We spend a lot of time talk about the characteristics and behaviours of mavericks, and of leaders. But little thought is given to the characteristics and behaviours or followers. Amongst Mavericks there is almost a cultist belief that we do not follow ‘great men’ or ‘great women’ but are driven by our own independent thinking and ideas to forge our own path.     

There is an underlying notion that leading is good and somehow following is bad; that it shows a lack of character or independence – a willingness to be corralled and cocooned. 

We are almost in an ‘Animal Farm’ place of leadership good, followship bad.

We Mavericks find it doubly hard to control our own egos and our own thoughts and to do what we are told. Unless we understand it and agree with it all, we make terrible followers and team members. We prefer to make our contributions from outside the group, often as critics of the logic or sense behind the leader’s plans.

But what if we do not know all that needs to be known? What if we don’t have the skills or the resources to create what needs to be done? What if the task is too large for a maverick thinker? Something on the scale of climate change for example. Standing outside the group saying what you have planned is not perfect is hardly going to bring about the changes we seek.

In these circumstances Mavericks will seek to find collaborators, if only on a temporary basis, or sometimes we find ourselves a leaders. We have been pursuing our own independent thinking and suddenly we look up and a whole load of people are saying – “What’s next?”    

Many of us have been there.

But despite the fact we all stand intellectually upon the shoulders of others who came before us (even if we prefer not to acknowledge it), we are highly unlikely to ask ourselves – “Who should I follow?” We might occasionally ask ourselves “Who should I consult”. We can tolerate the concept that someone might know something we don’t. But our loyalty, such as it is, is mostly to ideas and concepts, not people.

Thus we do not contribute consistently to groups where there is a defined leader. We do not develop the skills to make our contributions well received and acted upon. We prefer, quite frankly, to sulk and skulk outside rather than take the trouble to do this. This is when the Maverick ego gets in the way of results.  

Logically we all know that. Logically we all know there is a time to join and a time to follow. But we are not well practised at it. We are not well skilled when we do it. And there is always that nagging thought that no one is a smart as us, and no leadership that attempts to involve us is legitimate.

Surrounding, even temporarily, or agreeing to follow another’s course is extremely hard for Mavericks. At best we can grudgingly agree to collaborate for a while. But all to often that snippy sniper reasserts itself and we find ourselves picking to pieces the idea or the leader we once thought highly of. It can create chaos in ourselves and others. Someone once said of me …

“You are not just an agent of change, or the Vice-President of Chaos for the Western Hemisphere!”

There is some truth in that on my wilder days. I still find it extremely hard to be told what to do, unless it is by someone whose expertise I acknowledge. And there are not many of those.

Following the leader

My first serious experience of studying how to follow took place on the Argentine Tango dance floor. I remember my children laughing and saying “This will never work. Daddy has to decide what to do and Mummy has to follow”.

They were richly amused by the concept.

It was challenging. The temptation to point out what had gone wrong, what needed to be done was almost overwhelming. But the more I tried to lead, the less we danced. I knew I wanted to learn this extraordinary dance form, so I figured it was up to my leader to learn how to lead.

After a while I realised that it literally does take two to tango.

The leader can only lead a follower who is open to being lead. And leading in Argentine Tango is not about a leader wheeling a follower around the floor like a mannequin or a super-market trolley (in my case one with extremely wonky wheels).

It is about proposing a possibility to which the follower responds. The follower can action that possibility or counter propose. The follower is not passive.

It took time to learn to relax enough to be a balanced and responsive follower. It felt against the very nature of my being to even attempt it. But the rewards were rich.

In tango the tradition is that all ‘leaders’ start as followers and that only by learning to follow can they learn to lead. The trust a follower places in the leader is based on knowing that the leader knows how it feels to follow and what can and can’t be done.

Teaching trust

I learned to dance with my eyes closed – literally trusting the leader I was dancing with, to invite me and respond to me in ways that were possible, enjoyable and expressive.   

Yet off the dance floor, we do not teach our leaders to be good followers. We are mostly lead by people who have not ever lived a life like the one we lead.  They cannot tell when a change of direction will dislocate our shoulders or cause pain. They do not know what it is like to walk backwards in high heels and make it look elegant!

Our politicians and leaders have assumed a leadership role without ever having been good followers. They will not follow even the rules they have made. Their chaos and disobedience is there for all to see.

Do not mistake their behaviour for Maverick traits. An inability to control oneself is not what makes a Maverick. Far from it.  And we, who are Mavericks, must learn to control our instincts, and learn temporarily to follow so that we can become leaders who know what it is to live the life we are leading people towards.

Timing is important

On the dance floor it is very difficult for even the best follower to follow a leader with no sense of the music and timing. Random movements and a lack of stillness can make it impossible to understand what is a signal of intention or an invitation and what is just a ‘tick’.    

So it is in other forms of leadership. Too many leaders have ‘ticks’ that lead into stop start chaos that even the most skilled team cannot respond to in a meaningful way.

We must take the time to learn this, to experience it, and to smooth out how we activate ourselves in the world so that we are not chaotic leaders or rebels without a cause.

Too much of important is going on in the world right now for Mavericks to simply self identify as anarchic or outsiders.

Lessons to carry forward

Sadly I am not longer able to share in the tango dancefloor. A piece of my heart will always be at the nearest milonga, waiting for the music to start.

But the lessons of strong followership, responsiveness, and the ability to improvise within a theme have stayed with me.

No longer frozen by an inability to collaborate or follow, the experience helped me grow in ways I did not know I needed to.

If you have not brought your entire being to something and then followed it for a while, I commend it to you. Just make sure that what or who you follow has objectives and means you can be proud of. Then give it a go.

You and the world will be enriched by it. Let me know how you get on.

For all the thousands of words written on being a good leader, there is not a lot written about being a good follower. This too is a skill worthy or study. A tactful follower can smooth the path of a great boss having a difficult day and allow the boss and co-workers to handle strong emotions in a positive way.

This is not to say that any follower should be asked to endure bullying, tantrums of repeat bad behaviour. The truth is, we are all far from perfect and from time to time our leader needs help as much as anyone.

As on the dance floor, so in life.

Annabel Kaye
Annabel Kayehttps://www.koffeeklatch.co.uk
Annabel has spent almost 40 years helping growing businesses sort out the practical and legal side of paying people and has been a guest expert on both tv and radio talking about all things gig-economy. She founded KoffeeKlatch in 2009 specifically to support organisations outsourcing to freelancers. She supports micro entrepreneurs with systems and contracts and is running a number of dedicated GDPR support groups. She is a professional speaker and she is well known for combining common sense and humour when tackling compliance and legal subjects.

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