When the Leader isn't an Equal

A different challenge exists when a leader isn’t as qualified for the role as a follower or, in a sense, isn’t the follower’s equal. There are many circumstances in which this can occur:

organizational politics,


diversity values and policies,

rotational assignments,

seniority promotion,

family ownership,



high public profile,


amiability and charm.

When the most capable person is not the leader, a courageous follower faces several challenges. Most important is to deal with our own feelings about the matter. We often find it difficult to work for someone who is slower than we are, who fails to fully and rapidly grasp situations confronting the organization. Rather than feeling intimidated by their position, we may have difficulty masking our disdain. There may be bitterness if we hoped for the number one position ourselves.

We may also find ourselves in situations in which we must decide whether to cover for the leader or to publicly let the leader appear unprepared and unknowledgeable. We may experience ego-based conflict or ethical confusion about this.

Our workload often increases if the leader falls short of the role. Not only do we assume parts of what should be the leader’s role, we also spend extra time educating the leader through memos and briefings. We usually do this for a lot less money and recognition than the leader is receiving. Our resentment can run high.

As difficult as it may be in this situation, our guiding principle should remain service to the organization. It is important to acknowledge our feelings and frustrations, but if we are committed to the common purpose, we will keep working with our leader for its accomplishment. We will use our talent and competencies to help the leader grow and succeed. As long as the leader is giving his best energy to the role, he deserves our private and public support. And it’s surprising how much we can learn from even the leaders who don’t excel.

Sometimes it is simply that a capable person is given a job for which he has little experience. A newly elected legislator may have a great vision but be an ingenue on how to craft passable legislation. A seasoned aide may need to guide the legislator through the nuances of the issues and politics and the labyrinths of the policy-making process. Eventually, the legislator will master the subject and the process.

The mark of a great leader is the development and growth of followers. The mark of a great follower is the growth of leaders.