Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way – Workplace Methodology

Workplace Methodology and Proper Implementation

Ever heard the phrase “lead, follow, or get out of the way”?  If not in those exact words, anyone who has spent some time in the business world, especially in any hyper-efficient subniche, is probably familiar with the sentiment. Of course, being familiar with something doesn’t necessarily mean you understand it.

LinkedIn user Al Bagocious wanted to better understand the proper implementation of this particular axiom, and specifically asked about how to get people you work with to buy into the idea and to avoid offending anyone or coming off as overly brash.

Of all the complex topics we’ve tackled and dissected here, I wouldn’t expect a look at the particulars of such a general or overarching idea to generate so much interest, but after reading tens of other posts by users eager to share their opinions, I’m convinced there might be more to it. The more I read, the more intrigued I became, and the more convinced I was that there was something there worth talking about.

In this blog post, we’ll explore a few different ways of looking at the lead/follow/get out of the way mindset and how it fits in realistically with your business. Even more importantly, I’ll offer up some thoughts on how you can get people on board with the idea and present it in a favorable, non-abrasive manner.


One of the biggest divides in both understanding and in perception of this attitude has to do with how we interpret the last phrase: “or get out of the way.”

Traditionally, this has been seen to mean something along the lines of “you’ll be fired if you don’t get on board real quick with what we’re doing” or the (only slightly) lighter “if you don’t have something to contribute we don’t need you around.” How could anyone not feel threatened by that, right?!

These strong wordings seem a lot more like warnings than leadership or business methodologies, don’t they? Perhaps they can be both, but it’s easy to see how embodying this attitude might come off as harsh and not be the most tactful way to start off employee dialogue.

On the other hand, a LinkedIn poster, Ned Gavel, says that he interprets getting out of the way to mean that if you aren’t part of a main task force, then you should be contributing to some peripheral activity. In this way, we’re more looking at something along the lines of “lead, follow, or find a way to help.”

I much prefer the latter because it highlights a constructive attitude that hints at the very real need for everyone to find a way to help, rather than just threatening those who don’t. It’s a subtle difference, as are most of the things we’ll be talking about here, but words definitely have power, and being smart about how you use them can make your life a whole lot easier (and not just at work!).

With all of that said, sure, you’re going to run into some stubborn workers over the years who may need a sterner tone or the threat of getting the boot to get their butts in gear, but you should be playing the odds; if you’re hiring more of those types of people in the first place, you may have other problems that need to be addressed before you ever get around to actual leadership methodology.

Perceived Value

Advertising executives have known for decades, going on centuries now, that using certain words to frame a proposition gives you control, either overt or subtle, over message perception and effectiveness; in these ways, you can also control audience response to an extent.

Gavel touches on this in his post, noting that whenever you open a dialogue with workers about a project or something you need them to do, you should be working to create an amicable mindset from the beginning. Here’s exactly what he had to say:

“Not so difficult. Aiden is correct in that the way to open the discussion is to tell folks that you need help (or that the success of the team depends on their input). When you use the term “success of the team” they will automatically be thinking of the possible outcomes of “failure of the team” so no need to go into detail there.

Tell them that you need them (sense of belonging) and that you need them to succeed in order for the team to succeed (sense of purpose).”

That second part is really important, because you’re subtly working things we’re psychologically programmed to respond to into your conversation. He goes on to say that you’re going to want to ask people to choose how they will fit into the three piece puzzle (will they lead, follow, or work on peripheral activities).

What exactly those three roles looks like will vary from workplace to workplace and task to task, but you can probably already get a pretty good idea in your head. The most confusing one here might be “peripheral activities,” but this can actually mean simply carrying on business as usual, or taking on more responsibility to fill in for others who might be temporarily taking the lead or a more active role in an activity, improvement project, promotional event, etc.

(The Illusion Of) Choice

Let’s say you’ve got a big seasonal promotion coming up and you need a team to brainstorm ideas for getting the word out, and then to implement those ideas before, finally, staffing the event itself and making sure it’s a great day/period for customers – and has a big payoff for you.

When you present the lead/follow/getoutoftheway paradigm, you may want to start by asking for volunteers for positions, rather than assigning them right off the bat. This can help get employees to internalize ideas and tasks as ‘their project’. This could also lead to an increase in effort put in; sure you’d like to think everyone would give 100% no matter what you told them to do, but that isn’t always the reality.

Of course, in the end, you’ll have to make the last call as to what happens; you may know that certain skills simply make one worker or another better suited for a task. That said, letting people color outside the lines a bit (as much as is tolerable) and do their own thing is a good way to be seen as someone with acceptance for new vision rather than some task-driving dictator. Maybe that’s an extreme comparison, but you get the picture.

Workplace Methodology

Like any workplace methodology, idiom, saying, etc., the literal meaning or purpose is usually much less important than the implied one. The implied one comes primarily from your own people skills and perceptions of what will and won’t be well-received, and what will benefit your workplace the most.

In the case of “lead, follow, or get out of the way,” its original form is a bit harsher than probably will give way to its maximum effectiveness and best reception. As in all ideas, work to best mold them to your own individual business and know that your number one resource – people – happy should always be a priority.

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