By William F. Brandt, Jr.

I believe there is a vast reservoir of untapped energy, capacity and wisdom

within the people working at our organizations. A key to unlocking this potential

is to shift from the traditional paradigm of leaders lead and followers follow to

a new paradigm of everyone a leader and everyone a follower.

Some time ago, I toured a woodworking factory that was eventually acquired by my company American Woodmark. Its plant manager pointed out a worker stacking components coming from a saw. When the manager told me the worker had done this same job for over ten years, I formed an immediate impression of his limited capabilities. However, that impression was quickly shattered when the manager went on to say that after work each day, the worker went home to run his family farm.

If the worker was a “leader” by running his farm and its workers, then the factory was underutilizing his capabilities by letting him strictly be a “follower,” doing the same job for ten years.

Eventually, union negotiations at the same factory resulted in workers gaining responsibility for a number of decisions previously made by management. And recently, the organization adopted a “Lean Manufacturing,” model in which shop-floor workers take a leadership role in determining how to restructure work and improve quality, productivity and safety. These steps helped the organization transition from a leader/follower model to an everyone a leader, everyone a follower perspective.

Everyone a Leader: Organizations can fully adopt this new paradigm by establishing an orientation where all members approach every situation from the viewpoint that they may lead or follow depending upon the circumstances that unfold. With this orientation, “leaders” hold themselves responsible and accountable for acting according to the organization’s purpose and values. Even though they may have formal power over others, they see themselves as having a choice as to whether and how to share this power. For example, whenever we defer to a technical expert, we are choosing to follow this other person’s lead because they may know better how to fix a problem.

Everyone a Follower: “Followers” also see themselves as having a choice—whether and in what manner to follow. They are prepared to challenge, question and offer suggestions. And they do so without undermining the formal authority of their leaders to lead or relieving themselves of their duty to follow. While they respect the authority of their leaders, they do not blindly fall in step. Rather, they, too, hold themselves accountable to the higher authority of the organization’s and their own ethical values.

Everyone a leader and everyone a follower orientation has several profound benefits:

•  People don’t inherently see others in superior or lesser positions, and so they are more likely to treat each other with greater dignity and respect.

•  Neither leaders nor followers automatically assume that it is the leader who is “right” or has the “truth.” Therefore, both parties will more readily see reality as it is rather than assume that the leader already has the right perspective.

•  Followers are more likely to grow, develop their capabilities and become more autonomous.

•  Finally, people come to work with a sense of ownership of both their individual responsibilities and the organization as a whole. They are energized, ready to use their talents and willing to share their wisdom.

As a result of this new paradigm, organizations increase their capacities to be creative, make better decisions, accomplish challenging goals, establish competitive advantages and, ultimately, better act in keeping with their purposes and values.

Creating the belief that everyone is a leader and everyone is a follower is a challenging but highly rewarding endeavor. An organization successful in doing so unlocks the vast hidden potential of its members and becomes more of an Exceptional Organization.


William F. Brandt, Jr., is cofounder and former CEO of American Woodmark Corporation—the third largest producer of kitchen cabinets in America. His books include the winner of 22 Book Awards COMPASS—Creating Exceptional Organizations: A Leader’s Guide and COMPASS TOOL KIT, the teaching companion to COMPASS (www.WinterValePress.com ).

Copyright 2015 © William F. Brandt, Jr.

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