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When Should You Lead, When Should You Follow? Choosing Between Competing Priorities

Raise your hand if you are the one who is consistently sought out to complete special projects, join committees, or lead key initiatives because you are guaranteed to get it done and deliver results. Many of us are guilty of this and may become overwhelmed at the amount of to do items on our list. Worse yet, we struggle to say no based on the fact we know we can do a good job and people are counting on us. Your energy and your time are your most valuable resources. If you say yes to everything, you dilute your ability to focus on the most important items. Learning when to lead (saying yes) and when to follow (saying no) will allow you to commit to what you do best and delegate what you either can’t do best or don’t have the time to do well. We can’t be good at everything and success is realized in knowing this and sharing the load.

As an avid scuba diver and Instructor in my spare time, I have the fortune to travel all over the world. This past week, I was in Utila, a small island off the coast of Honduras. My dive buddy with whom I frequent remote corners of the ocean recently retired there. She is associated with a local shop where twenty-something’s from around the world come to learn to be Divemasters and Instructors. Their enthusiasm and love of the sport as well as the environment are infectious. They focus on safety, conservation, and education while honing their skill and teaching others. I enjoyed watching them walk a new group through their first classes and underwater adventure. Having done this myself hundreds of times, it has been a joy to watch. It was my week to follow, providing them insight only when asked. Many are testing for Instructor soon and are anxious about ensuring they are doing a good job.

Time away reminded me to consistently evaluate and balance competing priorities. Stepping back and identifying where the greatest opportunity lies from a particular situation is an excellent way to know if it is how you should allocate precious time. If you want to strategically manage your time, assessing the value of your endeavors is a key competency.


Your personal strategy should be spent on your strengths. Wasting time on your weaknesses is not strategic. Your goal is in knowing your strengths so you can leverage them to be as successful as possible. I was fortunate to have a boss who once said to me, “Hire people who are excellent at what you don’t do well.” He fundamentally believed that while you should be aware of your weaknesses, spending time on them is fruitless. His advice was taken, although it took a while for me to readily adopt it. I had to see it in action by hiring a team members who were impeccable in areas that were clearly not my specialty.

Examine your strengths ruthlessly. In a given situation, where should your attention be? What is your role and what is your contribution? You may have more skills, more insight, and more perspective than the person leading the charge. Shouldn’t you be in charge? Well, maybe not. It is highly possible that there is someone equally capable or more capable than you to lead an initiative. Step back, support, and examine the process. That is not to say follow blindly. Keep your eyes open and soak in EVERYTHING about the experience. By doing so, you will become aware of their talents and will be learning how to recognize and incorporate them when you take on the role of leader.

When to lead:

  • You are passionate about the work and can contribute on several levels

  • It is about the desired outcome and not your personal accolades

  • The opportunity plays to your strengths

  • You have the bandwidth because you have made it a priority

When to Follow:

  • You are not open to feedback and ignore your weaknesses

  • When a subject matter expert is capable of doing it better

  • Your personal goals are higher than team achievement

  • Juggling priorities is taking more time than you can commit to the cause

Following is not weakness. Being insecure in our roles is weakness. This insecurity comes from thinking the styles or thoughts of others will overpower our position. They may be right. They may be wrong. Only in unwavering focus on knowing what is best for ourselves can we come to play at the table and manage our own purpose. Be open to the perspective of others. It may or may not change your decision about when to lead and when to follow, yet it will provide you with the inputs to make a more informed decision.

Not being in charge is not a failure. It may be a blow to your ego because you feel you can, yet it certainly does not mean you should. Instead of focusing on “I should be doing more” or “I feel terrible for saying no”, ask yourself, “What is my role here and how do I best support this endeavor and continue my growth?” Then give yourself a pat on the back for appropriately balancing your priorities and knowing when to lead and when to follow!

Have you recently had to balance this same challenge yourself? Please share your thoughts with me at,, or @conciergeleader.

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