Leaders and followers

There’s two types of people in the world; people who run screen passes on every play in Madden, and people who aren’t steaming sacks of garbage.

I think I said that wrong.

Not to get too deep, but there really are two types of people in the world; leaders and followers.  From a very young age, my parents instilled this mentality into my everyday train of thinking, and I’ve grown up knowing the difference between what it takes to be a leader, and when people are followers.

Recently, I’ve been really pondering what exactly it means to be a leader.  If you’re like me, you probably always assumed “being a leader” and “being in leadership” are the same thing.  In a way, they are, because people who display the attributes often find themselves in positions of leadership.

Do you get what I’m saying?

Being a leader is a mentality, a passion, and inherent set of desires that pushes themselves and others to succeed.  Being “in leadership” is simply a title.

When I was 19, I started working in this small pizza restaurant in my small hometown.  It didn’t take long, but after a while I was promoted to a managerial position, which was awesome since I was only 19, but kind of intimidating because I was “in charge of” people older than me.

I’d never had a leadership position before, at least not where it mattered.  I was captain of my high school soccer team, but that’s an honor afforded to pretty much anyone provided you’re a senior and not riding the bench.

Up until this point, the only leadership positions I’d seen in practice were in the eight months I’d been working in this restaurant and the year before when I worked in a different restaurant.  I don’t want to speak for restaurant management across the board, but what I encountered at these first two places wasn’t exactly role model material.

You see, when I saw what it meant to be a leader in the professional world, it was kind of discouraging.  I saw grown adults yelling at other grown adults to complete tasks while they sat back.  At my very first job, the kitchen manager (who was a tremendously nice guy) was a buffet cook, who usually hung around the back and barked orders at people.  He wasn’t intentionally crass (he was from New Jersey, after all) but he had the look of a guy who was simply fulfilling a leadership position, not that of an actual leader.

At this other restaurant (the one where I was named manager) I thankfully was provided the blueprint of how exactly NOT be to a leader.  The owner’s wife and a 20-something year-old girl were my first superiors in this job.  Thanks to them and their awful customer service skills, miserable personalities, and questionable talent acquisition skills, I knew what I had to do to succeed in my new position; simply be myself.

I don’t want to be too self-indulgent, but if I list it on my resume and LinkedIn profile, I’m perfectly fine listing it here: I am a leader.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to do this alone, as I had the groundwork laid and examples provided by my mom and dad and then years of trial and error to figure out the best path to take.  Sure, I did things I thought were “cool” to help myself fit in; I listened to music I hated, watched television shows I didn’t like, hung out with people I wasn’t friends with, but by the time I was 17, I’d pretty much determined what it meant to be a leader.

So I think a 600-word introduction is probably a little redundant, but with that said here’s some advice to prospective leaders on how to become a leader yourself:

Compassion and Empathy

Truthfully, if you aren’t compassionate and empathetic, you’ve pretty much failed as a human being, but for a refresher, let’s go over the importance of displaying these factors.  For starters, you’ve probably heard the oft-used “I’m your boss, not your friend” quote when applied to leadership.  And personally, this is one of my favorite quotations of all time because of how utterly wrong I believe it to be.

You see, too often positions of leadership take the term “superior” way too far.  To some, leaders are the upper echelon of human capability, and anyone lesser is the scum of the earth.  Wearing a title and maker more money them someone may classify you as technically superior in an economic sense, but as far as humanity is concerned, equality rules.  In a business or professional setting, the ability to relate your co-workers, regardless of titles, displays humility, compassion, and kind-heartedness.  If you’re in a position of leadership, ask yourself if you’d rather answer to a cold, sociopathic dictator, or a warm, gentle friend who you can go to in a time of need.


Pretend for a moment you’re fighting in a battle.  You’re standing on the front lines, sword in hand, and ready to charge into combat.  It will be a difficult fight, perhaps even a futile effort, so morale is already at an all time low, and gets even worse when your commander, sitting on a horse near the safety of the back line, orders you to charge into battle while he waits.

Now pretend like you’re standing in the same position and your commander rides up to the front lines, dismounts his horse, and leads to charge into the battle.

Ask your, who do you want fighting by your side?

A leader isn’t the guy in bright colors, standing on the stern of the ship waiting to make ground, he’s down in the row house with his men pushing the boat onwards.

Being a leader has nothing to do with being in charge.  Titles, pay grade, and esteem are meaningless when it comes to displaying the mentality of a leader.  The guy who mowed Steve Jobs’ grass is more of a leader than Jobs because at least he didn’t steal ideas from his best friend and then discredit him.  Steve Nash has never won an NBA title, but he’s more of a leader than Kobe Bryant because he aimed to make everyone better (and actually passed the ball).

A leader will ensure everyone reaches the finish line, even if it requires going back and carrying the stragglers themselves.

Boss ≠ Leader

Being in charge isn’t the same as leading the charge.  A boss shouts commands and demands results.  A leader facilitates change and cultivates success.  At some point, changes will need made, and the acts of followers will need to be adjusted.  Where it’s an incorrect food order, a dropped pass, or a misaligned decimal points, mistakes happen.  Offering constructive criticism in the form of a passionate helping hand can go a long way in guiding someone through a successful process.  Likewise with the cultivation of success; breeding change and orchestrating positive objectives helps preferable results arise.

Stand up

Leaders, whether they like it or not, are the voices of followers.  If a culture of blame, negativity, and cold behavior arises from the leadership, how can the followers expect to learn anything?  Restaurants are the worst for this, because restaurant management tends to throw blame around like an oil fire (pun totally intended).  If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you can undeniably attest to this fact.  When managers throw each other or employees under the bus, it establishes a culture.  Restaurants, for example, are infamous hotbeds of gossip and trash talking that rivals even the most sinister 10th grade lunch table.

Before I became a restaurant manager, the place where I worked had literally 10 employees.  10.  You would not believe the level of NBA-level smack talk that came out of this place.  WITH 10 PEOPLE.  And who was usually the one leading the charge?  My manager and the owner’s wife (who also talked a supreme amount of trash out each other).

When I became the manager, I put an end to this really quick.  The catty, sophomoric drama that plagued this tiny pizza store were eliminated because we established a culture of openness, accountability, and sharing.  We shared blame and took responsibility for our actions.  I’m not advocating being a great leader is about taking the fall for someone else, but when someone is being singled out and screamed at for a minor issue, sometimes it’s okay to jump in and say, “hey, we all messed up, yell at everyone.”  Which brings me to my last point:

Don’t overdo the emotions

I’ve been working since I was 18 years old.  I’m now 24, and for each of those years in between I’ve been employed by a restaurant.

If you were to ask me how many bouts of tears, screaming matches, or outbursts of vulgarity I’ve heard over the last six years, I would laugh in your face and tell you to bring a bigger calculator.

I don’t want to entirely besmirch restaurants, by the way, because I’ve worked with some amazing people with good hearts and great personalities.  I’ve also had some great managers.  But, I’ve also dealt with overly emotional co-workers, unless drama, ruthless finger-pointing, and hilarious micromanagement.

The point is, establishing an identity of chaos (like so many restaurants find themselves being with) is poison to employees of the organization.  This is true across the board whether you play sports, work at a doctor’s office, or work in construction.

I don’t care if you’re the CEO of the company of the fourth-string fullback, overdoing the emotion is a mistake for any organization.  Obviously, I’m not advocating being a drone, but I am saying achieving balance is okay.  There’s probably times where an emotional breakdown in the bathroom is advisable, just like laughing for 15 uninterrupted minutes at the “Deez Nuts” videos is play.  However, being to spring-loaded in your emotional response is seriously one of the worst mistakes you can make when it comes to being a leader.

If someone insults you, do you instantly want to cry?

If something goes wrong, is your first response to scream like a moron?

If you see someone in need of help, do you giggle like a child while you talk to them?

If you answered “yes” to any of these, then I’m afraid I’ve got some troubling news; you’re going to have to fix a thing or two before you’re worthy of being considered a legitimate leader.

If (and yes, I realized this is the fifth consecutive line I’ve started with ‘if’) you learned anything by reading this, I hope it’s the difference between being a leader and being in leadership.  Being a follower is easy: All you have to do is wait for someone to tell you what’s up and you’re good to go.  Being in leadership is easy: Just wait until enough other people quit until you get promoted.

But, being a leader isn’t easy.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  It requires a commitment to an inherent set of values that push you to consistently strive for your personal best while also seeking to influence those around you.  Being a leader is a mentality and fortunately, can be learned.

Go out and see what changes you can make.  Be a leader.


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