I spent two hours watching Lainey through a glass window yesterday while she rehearsed for an upcoming ballet recital. After weeks of memorizing and practicing routine components, it was the first time seeing them integrated with all the other ballerinas’ routines for a rough presentation of what will eventually, in the coming weeks, become a seamless production of Paquita.
Fascinated by how these productions come together, I watched attentively as the instructors in the room conducted the rehearsal–clapping song rhythms, pointing out cues and modeling movements with impressive expression. Like every other mom behind the glass, I carefully watched my own kid, smiling at her predictability–eyes glued to the instructor and clearly focused on “doing it right.”
I’ve quieted my instinct to point out where (I think) she needs to be a leader and instead have learned to applaud how she follows well. Following well is as strong a character trait as leading and deserves as much encouragement and high fives as leadership does. In fact, following well is leadership–and sometimes it takes more self-control, humility and purposeful choice to follow than it does to lead. It comes with the ability to recognize and act upon someone else’s gifts. As Derek Sivers pointed out in his viral TED talk, “If you really want to start a movement, have the courage to follow and show others how to follow.”
How do we teach our kids to follow well?
Pick the right person to follow
If you’re not comfortable leading the pack or stepping out alone, then pick the right person to follow–someone responsible, someone who’s doing something that inspires you, someone who will teach you, support you and eventually stand behind you and celebrate when it’s your turn to do it alone.
Follow for the right reasons
Don’t follow a movement just because everyone else is doing it or let the fear of being left be your motivator. Follow because you’re passionate, follow because you believe in something and follow because you recognize your need for leadership and a good example.
Follow, but make it yours
Following does not equal conformity. One of my favorite scenes in Dead Poets Society is when John Keating illustrates the point of conformity. He asks his students to walk around the courtyard and yet still find their own way of walking. They all followed his instruction and performed the same act but brought their own stride so that none of them walked alike. You can follow and still beautifully stand out and inspire.
Understand the value of following
Following is not inferior to leadership. It is an active choice–not a passive sitting by. Don’t apologize for being a follower. Don’t do it timidly. Follow with gusto, knowing that by actively following, you are strengthening the collective force of leadership. And following a path that makes you feel alive still leaves footprints for people who walk behind you. Other ways to define following: supporting, pursuing, elevating someone else’s work.
Following isn’t a permanent character description
There are times to lead and times to follow, and we don’t need to define ourselves as one or the other. Even when you are temporarily supporting someone else’s work or learning from someone else’s leadership role, there will be cues and invitations for you to step up and lead. Inspiring, helping and giving direction is a constant cycle. Yesterday, little girls attentively followed other experienced dancers for routines they didn’t know well and yet jumped at the opportunity to help a friend for routines in which they felt confident. Leadership doesn’t come in obvious packages or with a “you’re in charge” badge. Lead/follow roles arise from awareness for what’s needed in a situation and recognizing what gifts you have to offer.
As Brett reminded me a few years ago in another parenting lesson of lead and follow, “I don’t want to tell the kids they have to be leaders. The world can’t be full of just leaders, you know. I want to tell the kids to be themselves.”
And yesterday, from behind the glass, I beamed watching my attentive little dancer–sometimes a half-second behind, sometimes the first to step the next move–find a rhythm, a style and a beauty that was entirely her own.
“The courtyard is yours. You don’t have to perform…just make it for yourself.”
~ John Keating, Dead Poets Society