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If You Are Not the Lead Dog

Manny RomanBy Manny Roman

Recent conversations with a friend brought back memories of an article I wrote a very long time ago. I decided to revisit the article because it might have relevance in today’s acquisition-rich environment.

As some of you may know, I am a founder of DITEC, a diagnostic imaging service training organization. DITEC was acquired quite a while ago and I went to work for an independent service organization (ISO) for about a year. It was during that time that I became acutely aware of the issues that arise when transitioning from being boss to having a boss.

The title of a book by William R McKenzie Jr. is, “If You’re Not The Lead Dog, The View Never Changes: A Leadership Path for Young Adults.” This is a relatively obvious statement. If you don’t get it, this means that in a line of sled dogs, the one in front sees a lot of snow, an occasional squirrel and some trees, the dogs behind see behinds. Their view of these behinds remains constant.

Translating that profound statement to business means that the leader determines everything and those who follow may not have much influence on what happens. As a follower, you might just move toward whatever direction the lead dog goes in, even if it goes off a cliff.

I wrote about leaders and followers a long time ago and here is a portion of it: I recently saw a show where a member of a special military operation did not follow an order from the Lord Commander which, of course, irritated the leader. As part of the chastising process the Lord Commander said something like “Do you want to lead someday?” The offender said “Yes.” The Lord Commander then said, “Then learn how to follow.” Learning to follow well is fundamental to becoming a good leader. Followership requires the courage to be led while ensuring that the direction is appropriate for the situation and circumstances. I still believe this to be true, however I have the following observations.

I found that it takes even more courage to follow than it does to lead. It takes courage to speak out. It takes courage to stand against the crowd. It takes courage to shine a light on issues that might not be popular. It takes courage to oppose the entrenched masses. As a follower, your courage will be challenged.

Winston Churchill is quoted to have said, “Life can either be accepted or changed. If it is not accepted, then it must be changed. If it cannot be changed, then it must be accepted.” It takes wisdom and courage to determine which course you will take when you are the follower and are presented with a challenge. Having a well-defined value system will go a long way in determining your direction. 

Going back to my experience, I caution you as you slide down the slippery slope of acceptance. I found that it gets more slippery and you accelerate with time. I found that acceleration and dissonance are directly proportional. I found that rationalization begins to raise its ugly head and you begin to actually find excuses for your lack of courage. I accepted what I could not change. I accepted that if you are not the “Lead Dog,” and all you see are lined-up behinds, then how could you profess to know the proper direction to take?

OK, so you want me to get to the point. My point is simple. I personally was not as courageous as I thought. My lack of courage was not in speaking out, my lack of courage came when I slipped into blind acceptance. I once gave someone the advice that when you do the wrong thing one time, it becomes easier the next time and eventually it will become a habit. I vowed to not let lack of courage become one of my three bad habits.

It takes a great deal of courage to do the right thing every time. As a follower, the balance between accepting and attempting to change the lead dog’s direction can be a big challenge. Courage, value system, knowledge and the ability to present your point well are essential to good followership. The lead dog that would not want your input does not deserve your followership. That dog will only present his behind and an occasional poop-on-the-run. Not a pretty sight.  •

Manny Roman, CRES, is association business operations manager at Association of Medical Service Providers.




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