Do You Lead or Follow?

I had a great discussion this week with my mates and the topic of titans came up. Not the Greek ones, but the current ones that drive technology and business forward. Names that came to mind included: Jobs, Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Musk. You get the picture. We started musing whether there will be a next generation of titans and who might fit that profile. It got me thinking about the types there are, and which I am. One isn’t any better than the other, it is just what we are each most comfortable with. Well, maybe the titan or celebrity would be more fun but…

I believe we can generally organize people into four buckets: titans, celebrities, leaders, and followers. Putting people into buckets is a dangerous thing to do since most of us feel we are unique and don’t fit any bucket. I would agree that we are all unique, but all of us have certain traits that stand out, so can *mostly* fit in some bucket or other. Knowing your tendencies and personality, and how you are driven might be useful as you grow in your career. For the types I mention, they form somewhat of a pyramid from titans to followers, with more followers than leaders, more leaders than celebrities, and more celebrities than titans. But what kind of traits can be attributed to each?

Titans are industry leaders. They are typically very smart, very driven, and know when to be kind and when to be ruthless. Well, at least the ruthless part. Most titans have the traits mentioned, but also have a very clear vision of a future state that is nowhere near what exists. They almost always have a bit of an edge on others whether it comes from access to the best schooling, knowing/being influenced by people that are somewhat elite in their space, or having doors to opportunity opened for them. There are few of these. Who knows? Maybe only a few can exist at one time and someone has to step down to make room for a replacement titan.

Celebrities typically know beyond any shadow of a doubt that they are chosen -- they are best at whatever they do and are willing to mix it up with others to get and keep what they have. Ego would be the word that comes to mind and that means they must be the center of attention wherever they are. Celebrities are more likely to create or invent their circumstance rather than have it given to them. Whether you are talking about an athlete, writer, or movie star, a celebrity most constantly works extremely hard to achieve success. They may have a natural gift, but will work hard to grow their expertise. Regardless of what may come, they cannot not move away from what they do. An artist can’t help but to see everything through the mediums the work with and are always thinking about their craft. Same with musicians, writers, and athletes. For those of us that are not the celebrity, listening to them can get a bit tedious as they can only talk or think about one thing. Ever. There are more celebrities that titans, but celebrities are in rarified air and are one in a hundred, or thousand, or million. Both titans and celebrities have the ability to flex their moral fiber in a way others may not be willing to bend.

That leaves leaders and followers, which are the buckets most of us fit into. We will have a natural leaning towards either leading or following, and more will be comfortable following rather than leading. For leading or following you are able to grow the skills needed to be either, your choice. For me, the choice came down to my goals and work/life balance I wanted to maintain.

One way you can characterize which you are is by looking at the “big five” personality traits that many companies use to identify people for their high potential programs. High potential programs are meant to help companies identify the future leaders in their organization and give those individuals additional support to speed the journey to becoming an effective leader. A search of the Internet will help you with getting more familiar with the five traits and there is a good write-up on Wikipedia. The areas are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, which, in that order make the acronym OCEAN.

Leaders are thought to have higher levels of openness, balanced levels of conscientiousness and extraversion, and lower amounts of neuroticism. As for agreeableness, there isn’t a correlation of it to leadership other than those that are more agreeable tend to make less money. The openness manifests as being able to envision success, conscientiousness as being well organized, and extroversion as being outgoing but not to excess. These traits may not come naturally but can certainly be learned. 

Followers have more flexibility to behave in a more natural (to themselves) way, so long as the behavior and position are compatible. For instance, an introverted wait staff at a restaurant may be undesirable. However, that behavior would work well for someone that delivers newspapers alone and early in the morning or is a fire lookout in a forest.

While there is a LOT of controversy between experts around the effectiveness of using these measures as an indicator for success on the job or as a potential future leader, this is the approach taken for companies big enough to have high potential programs. In any case, decide what you want out of your job and career and leverage these insights to help you achieve you goals!

Andy Ruth 
SEI Mentor
Apprenticeship Program