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Posted: February 19, 2013

Follow first—then lead

It's the journey that counts

David Sneed

If you want to lead, you must first learn to follow. Ben Franklin said that.

And if you want to be a corporal in the Marines, you have to be a private first.

How about a famous chef? You’ll peel potatoes long before you’re the next Wolfgang Puck. And you’ll learn to wash dishes and make gravy for a Gordon Ramsey before you ever run a kitchen.

That’s just how it works. Follow first, lead second.

But in business, we hire college graduates to manage because they have a degree. Why is that?

At last count, there are a trillion-and-six books on leadership. There are countless coaches and seminars and gurus teaching the art of management.

Do you know what they have in common? They’re geared for people who never practiced following. They’re designed to replace doing with reading.

 “But I had a job all through college,” you argue.

Oh? Did you take a job to learn the art of work – or for Friday night beer money? Because just showing up isn’t enough. Did you work with the goal of being worthy of promotion? That’s what Marines and chefs do. They do time learning to be worthy of leading.

Follow a leader, and you learn to lead.

In The Karate Kid, Mr. Miaggi didn’t teach Jersey Shore to block kicks. He taught him to move his hands. Peeling potatoes and washing dishes are the kitchen equivalent of wax on.

“Yes, Sir” and cleaning latrines are the Marine equivalent of wax off. Until Daniel-san learned to follow, he could never hope to lead or succeed. It wasn’t until he obeyed that he became the best…around.

Companies that hire from within, selecting grunts who prove they can follow, are well-run and successful. A business degree is no more qualification to manage than a uniform makes a Marine, or a cookbook makes a chef. It isn’t the title – it’s what it took to get the title that matters.

Corporals and chefs are leaders because of the steps it takes to become one.

If you must read a book on leadership, find one that teaches you to follow and get that part down. Only then will you be fit for command.

And if you want good managers, find your best followers and train them to lead.

David Sneed is the owner of Alpine Fence Company,and the author of" Everyone Has A Boss– The Two Hour Guide to Being the Most Valuable Employee at Any Company." As a Marine, father, employee and boss, David has learned how to help others succeed. He teaches the benefits of a strong work ethic to entry and mid-level employees. Contact him at

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Readers Respond

You gotta walk the walk before you talk the talk. It's been blood (cutting myself with a French knife) sweat (grilling on a hot line) and tears (strictly from dicing onions into a fine brunoise) to go from "cook" to "Chef" (note the capital "C", David). Wearing a fancy toque, does not a chef make. Nice job, David. By Laura Newman on 2013 02 23
@Ray. What about OCS? Enlisted men teach the officers, who must learn to follow. Then, when one becomes a Second Lt., he has the authority of an E-4 maybe? and won't be promoted unless he can follow. He may start from a slightly higher place, but he still has to learn obedience. No? By David Sneed on 2013 02 21
Military is an example of "having a degree and being selected for management" - officers are given authority over enlisted based purely on a degree By Ray White on 2013 02 21
I do agree with your view.... Its true that..first be the expert in one field, then crate your own field...Experience is the main key to get the strategy and move forward .... Learning from others mistake is the job of smart people, rather then doing mistake and learning.... By David Bergman on 2013 02 21
David, I sure agree with you, not everyone is cut out to lead. Technical knowledge and experience may build a airplane but a poor leader will take out a lot of staff during the build. All to often upper management promotes people to a leadership position because of their success they had in their tactical role. They figure that the soft skills that lead people can be learned. Maybe they can but it will be at the cost of many. I would rather be led by someone that knows how to motivate me to do my best even if they dont know anything about my job. By Bill Bradley on 2013 02 20
Amen. We've all wondered how some leaders got their jobs, especially when they are poor leaders. A degree, while laudable, isn't an accurate gauge of someone's ability to lead. Nor is tenure - I've seen many really wonderful employees promoted to management only to fail miserably. If you have a great worker, consider making an exception to your compensation structure to keep them in the role they're great at, while letting them know they're appreciated. I was a follower for many years and I agree with Dave - the experience gained following has made me a better leader. My team knows I've been where they are and respects me for it. And I'm clear about my respect for them, because I know it's tough in the trenches! By Sandy on 2013 02 19
There's another point here that I believe to be worth making. Not everyone is cut out to be a good, or even acceptable, leader. Just because you worked in a position, or even a few different positions, for a company, that doesn't ensue you have the characteristics of a good leader, or the energy, knowledge, training, etc, etc. Same goes for your college degrees. Leaders are formed and leaders are born, but it takes more than longevity or education! By David on 2013 02 19
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