I think many of us have heard this famous quote that is often attributed to various figures of American history. Some maintain it could have been said by Thomas Paine, but most say that it is unlikely he would have used this kind of language in the 18th century. By all accounts, it was General George S. Patton who first said, ” We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me or get out of my way.” I first heard this saying during my naval aviation career when it was adopted as the squadron motto of one of our F/A-18 strike fighter squadrons. Since as naval officers we were all measured on leadership and leading our sailors and shipmates, Patton’s saying was an interesting one for me because as military leaders we either need to assume the mantle of leadership and be right out in front of our troops, or follow those that need to lead us in the difficult and demanding missions ahead. If we can’t do this then just please get out of our way and don’t hamper our efforts as we try to accomplish the mission. Its the third part of this saying that is interesting because we are all either leading or following in some way day to day, whether its in the workplace, at home or in various organizations we belong to. “Get out of my way” obviously refers to stepping aside if you can’t lead or follow. It infers that if you are not leading or following, then you will be part of the problem if you don’t step aside. During my naval career I remember thinking about this quote: What am I supposed to do when I step aside, or do I just sit on the sidelines while the leader leads his followers or, what is the impact if I refuse to step aside?
I think many us have observed in our lives the challenge of someone who refuses to step up and lead, who will also not follow the leader and then who will not get out of the way as the organization or team tries to move forward. This challenge to leadership has always been an interesting one and I have witnessed many examples in both my military and aerospace/defense career where people have refused to get out of the way due to differing agendas, politics, ego or just downright dysfunctional behavior. The destructiveness of this to the organization, company or the team can often times be really devastating and depending on the mission of the organization it could cost the company precious time in a competitive world, money, winning a contract, or in the military it could even cost lives. I can also think of many examples where people did get out of the way when they realized they were not able to lead or they felt they just could not follow for whatever reason and they stepped aside for the good of the organization and themselves. They realized that life, work and situations do not always deal you the best hand and that there are times when no matter what you try to do and how hard you try, you can not be in the either the leader or follower role. This is where I believe the proper saying should be: Lead, Follow or you Must get out of the way. If you don’t, then the effect this will have on the team, the mission or the people in the organization could be really damaging. Also, in reality you must get out of the way for your own best interests and the future of the organization. As is always the case in life, things change and events or situations have a way of morphing over time. Having the maturity and the common sense to get out of the way when things are just not going your way is critical to both the organization and your own future. It is at this point that you would then watch how this situation matures or look elsewhere for a role where you could lead or follow given a different place in time and a better set of circumstances.
One perfect example of this leadership premise occurred when I had been hired in my industry career to lead a team of 10-15 business development (BD) professionals in a well known aerospace company. Unbeknownst to me when I joined the company in this role, I had inherited on this team an experienced employee of the company who had wanted the job I was hired for, but who now was a member of my team who I had to lead along with the rest of the team. When I realized the situation, I made a significant effort to reach out to this individual due to the awkward circumstances. We had a lot of responsibility on this program BD team and were given some new business capture objectives for the fiscal year that were going to be very challenging. I needed this person and his experience to help me and our team. However, from the very beginning this individual refused to lead tasks correctly, he absolutely refused to follow me or anyone on the team and he certainly refused to then get out of the way. If only he would have just done one of these three, we could have worked through this. But no matter how much counseling and mentoring, how hard myself and others in the company tried it reach out to him, he insisted on being a disruptive member of the team and in fact it ultimately became so difficult the company had to let him go. It was a very challenging time for me as a leader and it could have turned out so much differently for this individual if he had only just figured out how to to do one of the three key elements discussed here. If he had just thought through how to deal with the situation and work with the team, his future could have been so much different in the company. I am certain if he had “got out of the way,” he could have found his way into another role or a more favorable position that suited his goals. It was a waste of incredible talent and ability and even years later I look upon this as a real disappointment for me as a leader and our company at the time.
So if you can’t lead or are not in a position to lead, or you can not follow for whatever reason, then you must get out of the way. Not just for the good of the company, the organization or team, but for the good of yourself. Have the good sense to realize when this scenario occurs and try to look at the bigger picture. We lead and follow or move aside almost every day in both small and large situations in our lives. Remember the challenges you have had to take as a leader when you are then required to be a follower (no matter how senior we are, we always report to some other leader). Great leaders are first great followers. Get onboard and follow or if for some reason you can’t, then have the common sense to get out of the way. Find another path for yourself, but don’t hurt the leader, the team and their efforts.