Following The (Unfit) Leader

Begin by embracing your role as a team player
Photo by metamorworks / Getty Images Plus

John Russell is a natural leader.

His resumé reveals as much, boasting managerial positions with Ritz-Carlton and Hyatt hotels, co-ownership of Russell Vacation Rentals and Russell and Russell Consulting and his presiding role with the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation.

But it’s also evident in the confident, candid way in which he speaks to even a stranger who sent him a vague request for information for a magazine story.

Russell discloses that for every fiction novel he reads, one work of nonfiction finds its way into the mix to sharpen his skills and expand his knowledge base. My hourlong conversation with him shed more light on corporate dynamics than any courses or textbooks had ever afforded me.

But, he conceded, “I’m not a good follower. I don’t like authority or being told what to do. If I work for somebody that I don’t respect professionally, it’s hard for me to comply. But I’ve also had great, inspiring bosses who were mentors I’d strive to impress. They hire the right people for their team and create a natural order.”

In an ideal workplace, Russell said, anyone can be a proper follower. It’s the less than ideal situations — such as inept overseers who foster toxic work environments — in which you must rise to the occasion.

That is, the dedication to your work and self-advancement outweighs the urgency to quit.


Know Thyself

Throughout Russell’s career, coping hasn’t always been an option. “You absolutely have to self-evaluate and ask, ‘Is this something I can tolerate?’ ” he said. “Being a good follower starts with knowing your limits. Determine that line, and establish how close you are to crossing it.”

After a former employer came under new management, radical changes to daily protocol pushed Russell across his own line. His reason for quitting was this: He would be a thief if he accepted pay for work he didn’t believe in, and a liar for enforcing values he didn’t agree with.

But there are also times Russell counted himself among those who simply “put their head down and colored.” These are the employees who are so dedicated to advancing within the company that disturbing policies and horrible bosses are merely background noises capable of being tuned out.

But Russell advises people in those marginal situations to continue to assess and improve their performance. Just because you’ve found a way to deal with your situation and produce adequate work doesn’t mean it’s going to boost you another rung up the corporate ladder.

“Once you get to a certain point in your career, training is over. If you want to continue to succeed and support your organization, you need to invest in yourself,” Russell said.

Identify your weaknesses as an employee, whether they are listening skills or interpersonal relations, and actively work to improve them. Reach for that self-help book, utilize your HR officers and take some notes from model coworkers.


Know Thy Neighbor

Coworkers, Russell said, may be the most valuable coping mechanism in a tainted work environment. “One of the biggest things that unites people is a common enemy.”

The enemy may be that horrid new manager who just screamed at Karen for forgetting to restock the printer’s paper tray.

“You look out for each other — you know you’re going to get through it because you all love your jobs and don’t want to leave,” Russell said. “That morale brings you closer and makes you work harder as a team.”

Of course, an excellent follower is one who embodies his role as team player. It’s important to realize your co-workers are suffering, too, and likely feel undervalued.

Let them know they’re doing a good job. Actively listen to their needs, and make yourself a reliable source of assistance.  Being the light in an otherwise gloomy workspace can be as easy as asking, “How can I help?”

Grabbing after-work drinks and exchanging frustrations is a great way to blow off steam, so long as that, in the end, your group decides how to proceed. “When you get everything off your chest and resolve, despite everything, to do the best work you can do, you’re elevating everybody,” Russell said.

“If you end up feeling worse than you did during your work day, you’re escalating; you’re pouring gasoline on that fire.”

In a dumpster fire of a workplace, employees may be inclined to mutiny.

“Teams are groups of people with a common goal who hold themselves mutually accountable,” Russell said. “If you’ve decided to cope, not quit, then don’t be the resistance. Don’t become a terrorist, because you’ll end up hurting your teammates.”


Know Thy Enemy

According to Dr. Stephen Covey, whose book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is Russell’s leadership bible, trust is made up of two things: character and competency.

Do you consider your leader to be unreliable because of his behavior, or is he simply unable to handle his employees? If leadership style is to blame, it may be possible to modify your own behavior, anticipate reactions and avoid unnecessary run-ins.

It’s not always the unethical bullies who stunt your growth as a follower, but the passive pushovers or time-wasters.

“One of the hardest people to follow are the idea fairies,” Russell said. “These are the entrepreneurial-type bosses who throw around 100 ideas a day. They could be the nicest people, but they drive you crazy with their ideas.”

If your boss is prone to offering solutions in search of a problem, ask him how his latest proposition will benefit your organization. By tactfully asking probing questions, you may bring about some clarity.

If you truly believe your boss is unaware of his own incompetency, use your best judgment in finding a way to address deficiencies. It may not be wise to undermine an aggressive leader in the middle of a meeting, but for the boss who means well, feedback is crucial.

Find a time to confront him alone, and respectfully raise your concern. Again, asking insightful questions may help illuminate their perspective. Finding common ground may not be as difficult as you think.      

“Once you figure out what it is about your boss that makes you unhappy, then you can take control of the situation,” Russell said. “The only solution may be to self-eliminate, but if you want to stay, you tolerate it because you know that one day, it’s going to get you where you want to be.” 

Categories: Strategy