Chris Lorence: Exceptional leaders don’t forget how to follow

Forget what you know. Leader isn’t a job title; it’s a mindset.

What makes a leader a leader? Is it innate charismatic magnetism or an intense desire to succeed, burning so brightly that people are drawn to follow? The term “leader” is often used today to mean someone at the top—those in charge or with the responsibility to manage the activities of others. We know, however, that “leader” isn’t a job title or rank within an organization, and often the most exceptional leaders are equally good followers.

Consider one of the practices that exceptional leaders bring to their everyday responsibilities: engaging with the teams they lead. Engagement fosters and builds trust, a core element in the development of teams that are united for success. You may be thinking to yourself, “Wait, I understand that leaders need to be engaged and build trust, but they also need to establish authority. Chain of command, delegation of responsibilities and hierarchy don’t allow for following a subordinate. Someone at the top needs to tell others what to do; without it, there will be chaos and low productivity

Ask just about anyone for the name of their most inspirational or memorable leader, and they will often describe a person who connected with everyone on the team. They were keenly aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and were quick to roll up their sleeves to get the job done. Leaders are those who recognize talent in others and have no problem standing beside them—or behind them. Leaders must be as dynamic and multifaceted as the teams they lead, leaving little room for the rigidity or formalities of an org chart.

The good news is that we learn one of the most valuable leadership skills early in our career: being a supportive follower. As a follower with a leadership mindset, we speak up when things aren’t clear or if the team isn’t functioning as well as it could be. Supportive followers provide insight and feedback and stand aligned with the team and its leader. It should come as no surprise that the characteristics of a good follower are those we most appreciate in highly valued leaders.

Today, community banks are filled with well-educated individuals who want a collaborative work environment where their opportunities to learn and contribute are well balanced. As a leader, how does one develop trust and stay engaged while creating a collaborative environment where team members are thriving and producing results? Simple: Be willing to step aside and encourage others to lead from time to time. You’ll not only give another member of the team an opportunity to step up and shine, you might actually learn something along the way.

Chris Lorence
( is ICBA group executive vice president, member engagement and strategy, with expertise in enterprise leadership.