Lead AND Follow AND Get The Hell Out of the Way: Leading High Performing Teams

September 21, 2009 2 Comments

New York Yankees CelebratingSo many leadership articles focus on leading the problem children. You know, the ones like Tiffany in the last post. But what if you’re leading rock stars? What if you’re leading people who you know you’re blessed to work with? What if you’re only a first among equals?

Leading high performers is tough. As Belinda Gore points out when she talks about resilience: “when skill is high and challenge is low, boredom is the result.” High performers need challenge more than they need direction. They need space and for goodness’ sake, the last thing they want is a micromanager.

So what’s a leader to do? I offer a twist on an old adage – instead of “lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way” I’d submit, when dealing with high performers, it’s “lead AND follow AND get the hell out of the way.”

Confused? It’s really not that hard.

Allow me to set some context. I am incredibly lucky to lead an amazingly talented team of thoughtLEADERS instructors (check out their bios here). The team has grown over time and I consider all of them friends and colleagues. I learn from them constantly and regularly seek their guidance.

But at the end of the day I am responsible for the firm’s performance. I’m on the hook for aggregate results. I’m responsible for casting those tie-breaking votes.

I recently had a great opportunity to have much of this talented team in one location for an entire day. We put on a full-day workshop for over 50 senior business leaders. It was an amazing event. The lessons of lead AND follow AND get the hell out of the way definitely applied that day.


You’re their leader for a reason. Perhaps you built the high performing team yourself. Or maybe you were lucky enough to get hired to run a team of high performers. Regardless of how you ended up in that situation, you’re their leader. Part of your job is setting a direction for the team and laying out your expectations.

Set a vision for these high performers. Put some huge stretch goals out in front of them. They’re achievers and they’ll press hard to reach those lofty goals. Your role is to set that direction and those goals.

The goal I set for this event was to have over 50 senior business leaders attend (with a stretch goal of 75 – we hit the former but not the latter). I also put out a challenge for everyone to deliver the best 45 minute presentation in recent memory. The team knew where we were headed and what success looked like. It was somewhat ambiguous but they’re talented enough to operate like that.


As leaders we sometimes find it hard to follow someone else. This can be especially difficult if you’re trying to follow a member of your team. But back to my “you have two ears and one mouth for a reason” maxim, if you shut up and follow someone else, you might learn a thing or two. That learning is what will contribute to your growth as a leader. As my friend Jarrod Spencer says “iron sharpens iron.” Translation – when you hang around smart and talented people, you get smarter too.

For this particular event, many members of my team set direction on content, invitees, sequencing of the day, and too many other aspects to name. At first it was hard for me to not offer my own thoughts but as we worked on the event more and more, it became more comfortable for me to shut up and listen to their great ideas.

Many of those ideas were things I hadn’t thought of. They made the day much more successful than I could have made it on my own.

Followership is difficult. It requires you to check your ego (and your mouth) at the door. That’s hard. Try it sometime and see what you can learn from your team members.


This one is the hardest of all. It requires you to sit on the sidelines and watch. Watch the team perform and succeed. Not be a part of the action.

Wow. That’s really difficult to do. We are the leaders after all, right?

And even when we manage to sit on the sideline, we sometimes can’t resist shouting instructions to the players in the game. Getting out of the way means shutting up too.

A funny thing happens though when you get out of a high performer’s way – they shine. They blow things out of the water.

I sat there and watched a bunch of very talented colleagues do their thing. They nailed it. They did things their way (which wasn’t necessarily the way I would have done it but they did what worked for them). They were comfortable and completely in their element. They blew the audience away (and I’m not just saying that – the audience feedback forms say so).

Some very amazing things came from me sitting on the sidelines. First, by enabling everyone to do it “their way” I received many comments from participants praising the diversity of our firm (backgrounds, styles, content, etc.). Second, some of my teammates mentioned how fulfilling it is for “them to be them” rather than working for a cookie cutter firm and being forced to change their styles.

Was it hard for me to sit on a chair in the back of the room and watch my teammates up on the podium? Surprisingly, it got pretty easy after the first five minutes. If you get out of their way, high performers can do things that will blow your mind.

So if you’re as lucky as I am to lead a team of amazingly high performers, give lead AND follow AND get the hell out of the way a try. Both you and your team members will be impressed and extremely satisfied with the results.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

Photo: New York Yankees by Keith Allison

2 Responses to “Lead AND Follow AND Get The Hell Out of the Way: Leading High Performing Teams”

  1. Maureen Metcalf says:

    As one of the people who presented – your style of letting me be me made it a great day. I love working with people where I can focus on meeting audience expectations rather than some of the silly stuff that even smart people put in the way. Great day and thank you!

  2. Marty Y. says:

    Great job getting out of the way! The different styles certainly helped pace the day and make sure it didn't drag on. I thought the day went very fast!

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