I’ve been pondering leadership versus followership recently and wondering the merits of both. The assertion in the professional world has always been that if you’re not a leader, you won’t go anywhere in this life. If you’re not a leader, you’re a follower. We all went to grade school where being called a follower is worse than being called any curse word on the planet- it sticks with you.
Top producers are leaders. Intellectuals are leaders. Celebrities are leaders. Winners are leaders. If you want to attract followers, you have to be a leader. If you want success, fame, riches and fanciness, you have to lead. Anyone with an internet connection knows that you can be a guru or maven or expert on a topic by reading an e-book on it, right?
The only problem is that this logic skips some steps and is actually the reason that Snookie, American Idol rejects and the like are dominating the airwaves. A new generation is being told they can be anything they want if they just believe in it enough, hence all of the screaming 19 year olds leaving American Idol auditions literally cursing the world for how they’ve been wronged (given they were told the world was their oyster).
How I would become a White House Staffer at age 14:
When I was in high school, I was a classic overachiever. I joined almost every club and was always in some type of competition or another. I decided the most cut throat competition I could be in was debate, so I signed up and at age 14, I knew I would dominate and somehow, the President of the United States would probably see me debate and instantly ask me to be his Chief of Staff (and I guess I would have a private tutor on the side so I could finish high school and college).
On the first day of debate, we learned the annual topic was sustainable energy and I knew that I would quickly become an PhD in every type of energy source. I would speak eloquently to a crowd of intellectuals on the merit of wind farms and each person listening would have a single tear stream down their faces as they gave me a standing ovation and awarded me a ten foot tall trophy for best debater ever.
On that first day, the debate coach asked each of us to stand up, say our full name, where we were born, where we want to go to college and why we deserved to be on the debate team with the sole requirement being to remain concise and professional.
Of course I would go because I am awesome
Because I was the classic overachiever, I was in the front row, so she asked me to go first. I stood up and took a breath, smiled, cocked my head and said, “um, hi, my name is” to which she literally screamed in my face, “UM?! are you unaware of your name? Sit down, Um.” My dreams of becoming America’s Next Top Politician came crashing down in a quarter of a second flat. The room was silent and twenty kids were simultaneously mortified.
After the rest of the room had their turn to introduce themselves and either made it through their speech or were berated into sitting down and crying internally, she started again pointing her witchy finger in my face. “Now, Um, let’s try again.”
“There is no place for you here.”
“My name is Lani Anglin-” and she stopped me, “sit down, you are incapable.” It took everything inside of my 80 lb 4’11” frame not to bawl. I’m pretty sure I teared up. But instead of sitting down, I asked what I had done incorrectly and she said about three inches from my face, “you failed to provide your middle name and I clearly asked you for your FULL name, so sit down now, there is no place for you here.”
Instead of letting her move on to the next person, I remained standing and in the most frustrated moment of my high school career to date, I choked back tears and with clenched fists said, “My first name is Lani, I legally have no middle name but plan to take my maiden name as such some day, and my last name is Anglin, I was born in Austin, I will be going to the University of Texas and I deserve to be on the debate team because I will give it my all.” I then sat down, having defied her and not sure if I felt good about it.
“You don’t know how to give it your all.”
“You don’t know how to give it your all,” she said and moved on to the next person. I was mortified. Everyone knew I was a hustler and I rarely slept in between all of my school work, volunteer work and extra curricular organizations. Don’t know how to give it my all? I singlehandedly founded three separate student organizations, how dare she!?!?
But she was right- I didn’t know how to give debate my all because I barely knew what it was, what it took or what she would demand of me.
I tried to smooth things over…
I stayed after class, waited for everyone to leave, and told her I was sorry if I had offended her. She told me that I couldn’t float through on charm and finishing tasks, that she would push me beyond my breaking point. She asked if I wanted to stay in debate, I did, and she told me to come in the next morning at 6am, that I could meet her and the janitor to open the doors. 6am? “Fine, [insert cuss word here],” I thought in my head. I agreed, just to spite her.
At 6:05, she was red faced that I was late and told me if it happened again, I was kicked out of debate. She explained to me that morning (days before the rest of the class would learn) what CX debate was, handed me a giant tupperware bin that a dead body could fit into (seriously) and said I had to drag that to every single class every single day for that week. It was filled with thousands and thousands of pages about sustainable energy methods. I was given the impossible task of reading every single page by the end of the week.
Guess what I did?
I carried that damn 800 lb plastic coffin around and I didn’t sleep because I read every single boring page in the box. Friday after school was debate practice with the team and when I got there five minutes early with my stupid box (I was still the only one with a box), Coach told me I was in the wrong place and that I needed to come back in the morning. The morning? WTH, that’s Saturday?!!!”
So, I came back on Saturday morning and it was Coach with a bunch of older kids that towered over me and sneered when I entered. “This is your new debate partner” she told me and assigned me to a senior.
At the end of my first week of debate, I was on the Varsity team and I’d never even cross examined.
The moral of the story:
What Coach saw in me was an inability to follow. I was so used to automatically leading, sitting in the front row and raising my hand to every question, taking every single leadership role I could get my hands on, reading every book in every subject twice when others read it once, spending Sundays volunteering at the Church cleaning, organizing and working with youth even when not asked, and so on and so forth.
Coach saw an inherent belief in myself that I could do anything and although that’s a great confidence to have when auditioning for a reality tv show, it doesn’t make you an expert in renewable energy or able to effectively argue against someone who is smarter and faster than you. That leadership ability I had always been so proud of was thrown out the window and I was taught how to eat humble pie and the real meaning of hustle.
I became a better leader
The inevitability is that in order to become a leader, one must first be a follower. One must have a mentor and push themselves to read thousands of pages about energy sources and carry the proverbial plastic bin around while others simply show up, stand up straight and say “um.” In order to lead, you must follow and if you learn how to humble yourself before your profession, you’ll go further than those who simply rely on their confidence in themselves.
Want to know how I did at my first debate tournament? My partner and I took first place out of hundreds of experienced Varsity debaters. Thank you, Coach, for teaching me how to follow. It has made me a much better leader.