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The Art of Following

A subscriber recently asked me, “How do you follow a bad boss?”

The answer is, “The same way you follow a good one.”

Great leaders are only made from the ranks of great followers.

By “followers” I don’t mean passive doormats or sycophants. Those people are not effective followers, and they are not likely to become impactful leaders.

There’s an art to following. Especially if you aspire to be a valued leader, it’s an art you must learn. Here are three laws of quality “following” that develop the skills and virtues necessary to produce exceptional leaders. Each law accomplishes a dual purpose.

First, these laws are a simple and concrete way to practice humility.

The number one reason leaders fail is a lack of humility. In this context, humility means embracing your place in the organizational scheme of things and performing the duties of your position to the best of your abilities. The best leaders were also great dishwashers, parking lot attendants, and mail room workers at other points in their lives.

The nature of the work doesn’t matter. You will do big things the way you do small things. Bring your best self to your job, whatever it may be.

There’s nothing magical that happens when you are bestowed with a position of great responsibility. An impressive title will not suddenly make you an impressive leader or a different person. How you perform your current duties will be how you perform your future duties.

There are people in your organization whose job it is to identify future leaders. This is what they are looking for, and paying attention to, in staff.

Second, the laws are a way to lead from below.

As I’ve said many times, leadership has little to do with your title. Titles bestow more formal power, managerial and supervisory responsibility. Leadership exists in a related, but adjacent domain. It’s a relational field of action that operates beyond the firm black lines on the org-chart. Titles won’t tell you who all the leaders are in an organization. Their behavior will.

The laws below apply regardless of whether you respect your boss or not. They apply whether your boss is a top-shelf superstar or a bumbling palooka.

It doesn’t matter if you work for St. Francis or Vlad the Impaler. Follow these laws because they are the right thing to do, not because you judge your boss to be worthy.

The “worthiness” of your supervisor has literally nothing to do with it. Don’t let a bad boss turn you into a bad employee.

If you work for a “Vlad”, it might gall you that he will benefit in the short-term from your honorable follower-ship. However, these laws are ultimately aimed at your long-term good, not only his. Take the long view.

The three laws are:

1. Make them look good. No one values staff who actively undermine their supervisor; even if that supervisor is a jerk. Gossip, complaining, or throwing other leaders under the bus provides zero-value to the rest of the organization. It's selfish and accomplishes nothing positive.

You make yourself look good (to the right people) by making those you serve look good. Don’t lie for them, perpetuate fictions, or do anything unethical. However, do your level best to be the bright spot in your unit and help that team succeed. Fill the gaps, do what needs to be done, and help keep the ship afloat. Compliment your boss publicly about anything that is real and true.

Even though it stings, allow your boss to share in the credit when things go well, even if they had little to do with the success. Trust that other quality leaders in the organization will recognize who really did the work. Concrete external rewards might be long in coming, but eventually they will, assuming you are consistent and committed.

2. Decrease their stress. Deep down, even the most ego-deluded and horrible bosses know they are struggling. This produces tremendous internal stress and anxiety. This inner turmoil creates a vicious cycle of bad decisions and toxic behavior. Purposely amping up their stress by neglecting your own duties or secretly working at cross-purposes to them only feeds this cycle. No one wins in that scenario.

Especially if your boss is a true hot-mess, the more you effectively support their ability to hold it together, the better life will be for everyone – especially you. Make sure they are ready for the big meeting. Remind them about the upcoming report deadline. Help them organize their maelstrom of dysfunction, to the extent that those things fall within your realm of responsibility.

3. Tell them the truth. Be supportive. Be caring. Be humble. But never, ever, lie for them. Don’t keep their secrets. Hold your tongue when necessary. But when you speak, tell them the truth. Always. To the greatest extent possible, support them in public and challenge them in private. Be honest, transparent, and if needed, blunt.

If they are making a mistake, tell them. If they are about to embarrass themselves, say so. It’s not your job to rescue them from their own dysfunction. However, letting someone walk off a cliff without warning them is never the right thing to do. Be the honorable helper you would want if you were in their shoes, whether you think this particular person deserves it or not.


People get promoted for all sorts of reasons, most of which are probably out of your control. Those decisions might have been made before you showed up. Assuming you didn’t make that decision, opining over why this person was ever given their position is neither productive nor particularly important to your immediate situation.

You took the job. You have the responsibility to serve the organization as best you can. When it’s your time to lead, do better.

The reality is that most bad bosses were also terrible followers. Practicing the art of following will help to ensure that when you get to sit in the big chair and be the boss, you’ll be the one of the great ones.

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