The Secret to Being a Great Leader


Ever notice that when you are in the presence of a great leader, there is an elusive quality about them? Why do we hang on their every word? What makes them inspire us while others prompt eye rolls? How come their mere presence gives us the sense that everything is going to be alright? In other words, what makes them so easy to follow?

Many years ago my Aikido instructor Matsuda sensei invited me and another student to participate in a Kenshusei program. Long story short, it's like an apprenticeship meant to accelerate and deepen your training through immersion. So for 3 months we ate, drank and slept Aikido. Among other things, we attended every class, tended to the facilities, and received special instruction.

Now that I was attending every class, I was getting thrown A LOT more. The way Aikido practice works is the person performing the technique is like the Lead in a dance. The person being thrown (mostly me!) is like the Follow. When being thrown my job is to, as best as I can, keep up with movements of the Lead and fall safely so I can get up and get thrown again. Glamorous, right?


After weeks of being tossed around like a sack of potatoes, something dawned on me. I could tell who had better technique by how easily I could follow their movements during the throw. No awkward starting and stopping, no pulling or jerking, and very little pain or discomfort. Just a smooth whirlwind of motion culminating in me landing on my back.

"So what does this all have to do with the secret to being a great leader, Joe? There's a point coming, right?"

Yes, let's get moving. The point is right around the corner.

Let's take a look at a quote by author and leadership expert Bruce D. Schneider that captures the essence of leadership.

"Leading is the way we help people move into action, including ourselves."

What I love about this is it zeroes in on HOW leaders help people move, rather than merely the end result.

So how do great leaders get so good at helping people move into action?

The secret to being a great leader is understanding how to FOLLOW.

I don't mean following your followers. After all, you're the leader! What I mean is having a deep understanding of how what you do affects the ability of others to follow you. The way you do this is understanding what works well when YOU are a follower yourself.

Lately I've been exploring the concept of Embodied Leadership - how studying physical movements can help one better grasp leadership principles. Let's look at three examples that reveal how understanding how to follow makes you a better leader.


Let's say I grab your wrist. A basic technique called Ikkyo starts with you moving the arm that is being grabbed up like raising a sword, which stretches my arm and takes out the slack. Think of a stretched rubber band. If you move too quickly, my instinct is to let go. If you move too slowly, I will adjust and you won't get the desired stretch.

Ever notice that some leaders set a pace so fast that no one can keep up? Think of the "I Love Lucy" chocolate conveyor belt scene where Lucy and Ethel are desperately trying to keep up. On the flip side, ever have a leader that takes so much time to make a decision that people lose interest and motivation?


Let's reset. I go to grab your wrist again. Notice how if you move after I've already grabbed you and settled my weight, the stretching of my arm becomes a lot more difficult. If you move just as I'm grabbing, you will feel a lot less resistance and I won't feel much either.

Think about how you catch a ball or stop a car. You begin a little earlier and then the catch or stop is much smoother. On the flip side, if a leader moves too soon, it makes it difficult for people to connect with them and follow. When a leader first makes sure his people understand and are fully engaged, they can follow the desired course more easily.


Do you know where the weak point of a grasp is? It's the gap between the thumb and the index finger. So if you're trying to stretch my arm, you have to be careful not to move in a way that causes me to lose my grip.

Ever had a leader who asked you to do something, but then moved in a way that created several roadblocks? For example, they asked you to take more of a leadership role with your team, but then proceeded to second-guess and overrule most of your decisions.

How a leader positions themselves within an organization can have a drastic influence on how well others can follow them. Are they available? Do they provide direction when no one else can? Do they empower the right people? Are they holding everyone on the team accountable and not playing favorites?


In an Aikido technique, when the Lead has the right Speed, Timing and Orientation, the result is I can easily relax and follow them without fear or injury. I suspect this is because they are taking my ability to follow them into account. My height, my weight, my flexibility, and my level of practice all inform how they move and as a result, how easily I can follow. In the same way, a leader who leads with the right blend of Speed, Timing and Orientation creates an environment of trust, where the team can move confidently and execute to the best of their ability.

Statistically, every company will have some poor hires. People who lack either the right skills or attitude to do the job. However, often the bigger problem is a misdiagnosis of poor employees. The painful truth may be the leader has forgotten what they learned as a follower and is leading in a way that makes it difficult for anyone to follow them.

The wonderful and maddening part is there is no set formula, hack or leadership model that will work in every instance. Truly great leaders (not to be confused with powerful or wealthy people) understand what it takes to make it easier for people to follow. Truly great leaders adjust themselves to what is required in a given environment. Perhaps this is why some leaders may succeed at one company and then fail miserably at another. And finally, truly great leaders do this in a way that is powerful, but barely perceptible. We might not be able to put our finger on what they are doing that makes them so easy to follow, they just are. So the next time you are tempted to bemoan the poor caliber of followers on your team, consider what you can do to help them follow better. I promise it’s worth the effort.

If you have any questions or comments or have a story of your own, I'd love to hear from you.

Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.