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There’s a difference between having to follow you and wanting to

Brain lightning struck when I was 23. My Captain in the Marine Corps asked me to describe good leadership in one sentence to the platoon if I could. I thought for a second and replied.

“Sir, good leadership is the actions you take that make people want to follow you.”

He thought for a minute and said “Sergeant, that may be one of the best definitions for leadership I’ve heard.”

Like I said, lightning. I wasn’t that good of a leader at the time being freshly promoted, but looking back I think that my attitude and that answer meant I was on the right track to becoming a half-decent leader someday.

Since then I’ve studied and practiced leadership in military, corporate, and volunteer settings. I have found there’s a major performance difference between people who just have to follow you vs. people who truly want to.

Most people follow their bosses only because they’re paid, no other reason. But a few good leaders inspire more than that. They inspire people to want to go above and beyond just because of how they lead.

This difference between having to follow and wanting to follow can make the difference between average and great results for you as a leader.

Here’s how to be a leader people will want to follow anywhere.

You Have To Be Willing To Humbly Get Your Hands Dirty

I love the story of the old man who, during the Revolutionary War, saw a group of muddy and exhausted soldiers struggling to get a defensive position built. Their leader, a Corporal, was standing by just watching them work and shouting orders. The man asked the Corporal why he wasn’t helping to which he replied “I am in charge of leading these men. They do as I tell them.”

“So why aren’t you helping?” asked the old man.

“Because I’m their leader. They do as I say. If you feel so strongly and want to help then go ahead.”

So the old man helped the men until the job was done. He thanked the soldiers for their hard work and for allowing him to help. Dirty and sweaty, the old man walked up to the Corporal.

“You should notify higher command the next time your rank prevents you from supporting your men — and I will happily provide a more permanent solution.”

The Corporal’s face ran white as the Commander of the Continental Army General George Washington mounted his horse and rode back to headquarters.

Imagine the love the men had for him after that. Humble and dirty hands inspire that love.

The best leaders I ever met got their hands dirtier and worked harder than everyone else. They did it without meddling or micromanaging or arrogance. If they were helping, they became a helper, not the boss, just like George Washington did.

You’re never above the work of those you lead. Of course, you can’t jump in and help with everything as you have to manage bigger things, but you are always ready to help if needed.

A good leader who has the humility and willingness to get their hands dirty is a leader people want to follow.

“Many people excuse themselves by claiming that they don’t have to do work anymore because they are beyond it. They are simply afraid of getting their hands dirty. Getting your hands dirty washes your being.” — Frederick Lenz

You Have to Want and Care

People know if you want to be their leader or not. Just like kids can sense if you resent them or resent your life. Not that employees are kids but the perception of human acceptance of things is universal.

Even if your job isn’t curing cancer, you can still be proud of the work you are doing.

Caring about your work is how you inspire others to care.

I, as many veterans do, struggled for years with a sense of purpose when I left the military. I thought, “how could (whatever job I had at the time) compare to where I just came from?” It couldn’t. And I was wandering aimlessly.

Then I realized no matter what I did, I had a purpose. The purpose of doing my best. Of providing for my family’s future. Of being a positive and productive member of society. Of making the lives of people I led better. Of adding good to the world when I could. There’s a noble purpose to be found in any honest and hard work.

When you care about doing a good job regardless of your mission, you set an example for pride in a work ethic. When you think like this, the people you lead know they have a leader who truly cares. A leader who wants to lead.

And a leader who wants to lead and do their best regardless of the mission is a leader people want to follow.

“Whatever you are, be a good one”- Thackery

You Have to Bleed and Eat at the Right Times

“Take care of your employees, and they’ll take care of your business.” — Richard Branson

This is one of the most important aspects of leadership. I often write “leaders bleed first and eat last” because that summarizes leadership in five words.

A leader puts the welfare of those they lead ahead of their own — they eat last.

A leader puts themself in discomfort or harm’s way before those they lead — they bleed first.

One of the best leaders I ever knew would risk ridicule, punishment, and comfort to make sure we were taken care of. He’d stand up to the crap that often flows downhill. He’d step on upper-management’s toes if they were doing us wrong.

He cared about us even more than his career it seemed and in turn his career flourished.

He was the greatest leader most of us ever had or will ever have. He served us with all he had and we gave him all we had in return. No other leader could ever match his results because all of us wanted to follow him.

Mutual trust spawned from servant leadership makes someone a leader people truly want to follow.

“The first and most important choice a leader makes is the choice to serve, without which one’s capacity to lead is severely limited.” — Robert K. Greenleaf


If you can tip the scales from people having to follow you for a paycheck only vs. wanting to follow you even if you weren’t their boss, then you’ve become a great leader.

If you have to pick one approach that inspires this desire to follow you the most effectively, it would be serving the people you lead.

Take care of them. Look out for them. Lift them up. Shoulder the BS from above completely on your shoulders. Tell the customer they are wrong if they are before you ever throw your team under the bus. But if someone you lead is wrong, counsel them with care and without a paper trail if possible. Take care of “your” people and they’ll take care of you.

Get your humble hands dirty just like George Washington did. Take care of your people before you take care of yourself. Bleed first and eat last.

When you do these things you’ll become a leader people truly want to follow.

“Become the kind of leader that other people would follow voluntarily; even if you had no title or positon.” — Brian Tracy

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