Lead, follow or get out of the way (Thomas Paine)
What is it about this piece that inspires you and helps sustain you as a leader?
This quote has been my touchstone whenever I believed I was in an irreconcilable situation and I have offered it to my clients many times when they have been over-challenged by change.
My father was a toolmaker, engineer and general manager in the manufacturing industry. He had the gift of plain speaking and he told me about Thomas Paine and this quote when I was an adolescent.
My parents had decided to separate and I did not want my father to leave. I thought if I could intervene in some way (emotional blackmail being the usual adolescent weapon of choice) I could lead them both back to sense – my sense. I was facing a harsh reality, the first of many, that required me to exercise my judgment and my father patiently explained that so was he. He taught me what it meant to ‘Lead, follow or get out of the way’.
He told me that there were only three things a person could do when confronted with any difficult situation – in business or in life - but that there was only one choice to be made. He also told me that I would have to make this choice many times in my life and that the choice would not always be the same one. The choice required judgment and judgment was a skill to be learned and practiced, all one’s life.
Sometimes it would be right to lead. Sometimes it would be right to follow good leadership. When I found myself in a situation where, after much consideration, I could not bring myself to lead or to follow then the most helpful and sensible thing I could do would be to get out of the way. In that situation, where I had to get out of the way, it was because I lacked experience, understanding, know-how, inspiration, courage, conviction, or faith and this was a clear indication that the situation was probably not my responsibility anyway.
Thomas Paine’s quote suggests that until you are confident in the leadership of the other or of yourself, then it would be best to step aside and let the next opportunity come along. My father was wise enough to know that in life and in business opportunities (and threats) knock more than once and trying to lead when you are not able to or do not have the support of others is foolhardy. Following where you do not have the conviction and faith in another’s leadership is a recipe for disaster. Getting out of the way, leaving the path clear for others to succeed may be the most helpful and sensible decision. Abstention is a form of conscientious leadership.
In the end, after a period of separation (and after I left home and got out of their way), my parents reconciled. They found a way to follow each other’s leadership.