Lead, follow or get out of the way?

Some of our readers asked us last week about life strategies and philosophies and thus we are starting a series on coping strategies and relate them to famous people. Thomas Paine, an Englishman who was one of the founding members of the United States of America, made a bold statement once: Lead, follow or get out of the way. He used it in conjunction with the American quest and fight for independence.

This statement seems incredibly harsh at first glance and awfully restrictive. Being written in the imperative, it also gives an impression of intolerance. So why would anyone suggest this as a life strategy?

It is important here to look at this statement in an objective manner and dissect its meaning carefully. The phrase urges people to choose between three options: Either you lead and are thus a leader, you follow and are thus a follower or you just do not stand in the way of either. I would like to take this strategy further and get deeper into the meaning of leaders and followers.

Modern ways of living, in particular in big cities, can be stressful and demanding. Especially pressure from work can be daunting and job prospects are also not always rosy, especially in economically harder times such as now after the recession. Almost all jobs require some sort of hierarchy and thus the people employed are divided into leaders and followers. Both leaders and followers are invaluable and make things work and function. This is a natural phenomenon and necessary in our society as it stands.

The statement is more interesting and useful in conjunction with your own life when it comes to decision-making. Often we defer decision-making due to the repercussions of the choices. Depending on the situation, this can result in the loss of valuable time or in procrastination. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but can be if substantial amounts of times are lost and we potentially arrive at a deadlock in our lives. Bailey Bradmore recently wrote a brilliant series about overcoming procrastination (see part 1, part 2 and part 3 of her series).

This is exactly where Thomas Paine’s statement hits the nail on the head. You should take charge of a situation or let another person make a choice for you. Here, “get out of the way” means: stop procrastinating and either make a choice or let it be made for you. If you use this strategy for yourself, it can save you a great amount of time. I personally also apply this to my friends and family when I see them struggle in life. I will advice them to make a certain decision when they have reached a stage at which they are running in circles. I will give them advice which they are free to choose. Of course, one has to be careful not to rush oneself or anyone else into decisions as choices often have to be weighed carefully. Some choices also need time (see a related article) but in some cases this can turn into procrastination and in my experience, things are better tackled today than tomorrow. This is actually anchored deep into German philosophy. A famous German saying used by most people on a regular basis is: Was Du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen! (What you can accomplish today, do not postpone until tomorrow!).

This strategy has helped me make many decisions in life. Of course it may suit certain personality types such as the INTJ more than others. But why not learn from this particular type as strategist and planners are often good at decision-making?

I have listed below a few cases where it is often more important to lead or follow and not procrastinate. Decide for yourself how you want to lead your life, but my advice may help you in certain situations:

  • Making health decisions. Should I listen to the doctor or not? My advice: Follow. Decisions about your own health are usually in good hands with a specialist who can also see things more objectively.
  • My relationship does not work. What should I do? My advice: Make a decision from your heart and from the facts. Do not ponder on it. Relationships should be easy although circumstances can be hard. Are the circumstances difficult or has the relationship become difficult?
  • I want to change my habits. Should I give up a bad habit? My advice: Definitely lead! Depending on the situation it can be incredibly hard. For example if you want to give up smoking, why ponder on the thought? Of course it is hard. But make the decision. It is better to face potential drawbacks than to plan something in vain forever.

So now why not think next time you make a decision to lead, follow or get out of the way? It sounded so harsh at the beginning, but it can be a very helpful and insightful strategy which may help you in the future.

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