Leaders Don't Always Lead

Sometimes the best leaders take a step back

Young asian businesswoman explain idea to group of creative diverse team at modern office.

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Leaders lead. We all know that. We always see them step up and effortlessly take charge. Look a little more closely at a good leader you know and you will notice there are times when these good leaders don't lead; they let others lead. They become followers. They become followers who are every bit as good at following as they are at leading when it's time for them to lead.

When Leaders Lead

When leaders lead, they share their vision and their excitement. They motivate their followers with their passion. Good leaders lead by example and provide those under them a picture of what is possible.

When you see a leader step back and give someone else the opportunity to lead, it's usually of one of a few solid reasons: training, delegation, or expertise.


Leaders develop their team members. They help the team members gain new skills to help the team increase its ability to reach the leader's goal. One important skill the leader teaches the team is leadership. And, oddly, another is followership.

One way you give someone an opportunity to learn and improve their leadership skill is by letting them lead. If the leader always leads, no one else on the team will ever have the chance to practice leading and they won't improve in that key skill. So when the leader steps back and lets someone else take over it helps them both.

You can call Bob into your office and tell him, "I want you to run the meeting this afternoon. I'll be there if you have any questions, but it's your show." The hard part for the manager is letting Bob run the meeting. If there are questions during the meeting, they should be directed to Bob, not the boss. If someone asks the boss something, he/she has to defer to Bob. The leader should only answer the questions from Bob. This shows the team that Bob is the leader.

Or you call Maria and tell her, "I want you to head up the new project. Here are your resources. This is the schedule. Here's what I expect. Keep me posted and see me if you have any issues." Then get out of the way and let her lead the project team.

I have led many community service projects for previous employers so when my new employer was looking into such a project I was trying to figure out how I could make time to lead it. When one of the other employees, a person in an individual contributor role, stepped up and volunteered to lead the effort I was pleased and relieved. I had discovered someone who might have some leadership talent I could help develop and I wouldn't have to expend the extra effort to lead the project. I could be a part of the team. I could be a good follower.

And that is the second key skill a leader trains their team in: followership. A good leader has good followers. Just as the leader has led by example and shown the team his/her vision and the picture of what is possible, the leader now shows the team, by example, what good followership is. In each of the three examples above, the leader has the opportunity to jump in and "fix" things, but that's not leadership and it is not followership.

The leader has to know when to let the team member face some challenges in order to grow and improve their performance. By letting the others lead, the leader provides a great example of followership. It can be in the leader's group or in a different part of the organization. The leader trains team members every time he/she doesn't lead.


When a leader delegates to one of their team members, that person has the opportunity to function in a leadership role. They get hands-on practice in leadership and get to improve their skill. If a leader is always the leader, they aren't delegating. If they aren't delegating, they are missing a critical opportunity to train their team members.


Another time when leaders don't lead is when they recognize that someone else has greater expertise in the subject matter. That someone could be another leader in the organization or someone in a subordinate position.

We needed musical entertainment for the annual company picnic. I have two people on my team who are musicians and have played professionally in the past. I gladly stepped aside and let them make the choices of what type of music to have, which musicians to hire, what sound equipment was needed, how to set up the stage, etc.

Bottom Line

It can be hard for a leader to not lead sometimes, but it is essential. It lets the leader improve his team and its members and makes it easier to achieve the goals. This doesn't mean you run away from a difficult situation and let someone else lead. It means when you are in charge, you let someone else be the leader.