Are you a Leader or a Lemming?

Guest post from Sandy Coletta:

I know what you are
thinking – a lemming is a follower and by its very definition, a leader
isn’t a
follower. It is absolutely true that within a given group, the leader is
setting the direction and guiding those who follow. But what happens when you
assemble a group of leaders? Perhaps it starts within your organization, then
within your industry? How many “leaders” are present at your college reunion,
your country club, or your annual conference? At some point in your career
journey, have you started to focus more on status as a leader than the job at

Regardless of our
station in life, there are always others who share similar roles.  All of us have a peer group and within that
group a select few are viewed as the role models and the others aspire to reach
that level of peak performance.  Said
more simply, some are leaders and the majority are followers.  So even the Chief, President, Provost, Chair
or other applicable senior title within your organizational structure are
leaders while at the same time mimicking the practices established by those
they aspire to be.    These individuals,
Lemming Leaders, are less focused on adapting best practices to their specific
setting and more concerned with being at the “industry standard”.

Signs of a Lemming

Use of jargon:

Do you use the
terms restructuring, high reliability, six sigma, just culture, strategic
sourcing, population health, or employee engagement in your organization? How
about reengineering, total quality management, performance management, learning
organization, value analysis, managed care, or employee satisfaction?

The trappings:

Look in your
driveway.  Does your car reflect your
“status”? List your favorite restaurants. Do you bump into employees when you
are there or other executives?

Your friends:

When is the last
time you spoke to a friend from high school? Who would you call in an emergency
if your family was unavailable? Are your social activities limited to work and
business colleagues?

Your bookshelf:

Are they all
leadership books?

The other

Do they know you? I
mean, do they really know you?

So, if you are a
Lemming, join the club! It is human nature to look towards others who are
successful in a similar position and try to emulate them. The problem rests
however in how this pre-occupation with being acknowledged as a “leader” by
your peers is perceived by your employees. This job you are in isn’t about
enhancing your standing relative to others, but is about enhancing your
organizations’ performance in the market, which can only be achieved through
the combined efforts of your entire team.

To break away from
the lemmings, give these techniques a try:

1. Use plain
language to describe what you are trying to accomplish. If you are trying
to make your operation more efficient, then say so. “To continue to have our
product priced competitively so we can increase sales, we need to reduce our
costs. To do that, we are going to identify any work effort that doesn’t make
our product better and eliminate it.”   

Sounds a lot clearer than saying “we are going to embark on a six sigma project
to improve efficiency,” doesn’t it?

2. Encourage the
customization of best practices in your organization. Learning from others is appropriate, copying
is not!

3. You should be
able to enjoy your life and the economic rewards that you have earned. Just be
sure that what you want is the driving force, not what looks best. My most
recent peer review included a comment that I needed to get a better car. I
drive a Fiat 500. I worked hard to earn a salary that allowed me the discretion
to buy what I love, not just what I can afford. I love my Fiat, whether it fits
my role in the company or not!

4. This one is
IMPORTANT: When the time comes for your career to end, and it will one way or
the other, your friends and family are the ones who will still be there. If you
have those kinds of people in your life, treasure them. If not, find some who
don’t know and don’t care what you do for a living.

5. Remember back in
your undergraduate liberal arts classes when you had to read the classics? That
was when you learned to think for yourself. Keep reading the leadership books
if you must, but branch out a bit. Read a novel. Study history. Write a poem.
Think beyond what other leaders have discovered, discover on your own.

6. Be open with
your staff; share who you are and what you care about. Be fair, not

As my career
progressed and I got drawn into a “lemming leadership” identify, my mother
would quite bluntly point out that the higher one climbs, the harder the fall.
She reminded me that I am privileged to have a great job, but it does not
define who I am.

Know who you are
and be yourself first and lead from there. When it comes time to hand off the
job to the next rising star, you will still have your feet on the ground to
break the fall.

Owl Approach to Storytelling: Lead with Your Life
, the first book from Sandy Coletta, is available
now. Originally published in early 2017, The Owl Approach combines
a how-to guide for leadership storytelling with examples of actual stories
shared with Coletta’s staff at Kent Hospital in Warwick, RI during her
tenure as President. The book offers insight into when to use personal
stories, where to “discover” those stories and why the moral