My wife and I are currently expecting the birth of our first child. As a result, we’re taking more walks than usual, in order to encourage our little one to make her arrival (see my video on the author page). We enjoy walking while holding hands, and my wife has made a keen observation: it’s most comfortable for us to walk together when we’re exactly out of step with one another.
With our fingers locked together, our arms naturally want to sway so that our left arms swing forward when our right feet step forward, and vice-versa. What this means is that, when we’re holding hands, if we’re in step with one another–both of us moving forward with our left feet at the same time–then the natural swing of our arms are at odds with one another: if my right hand is holding her left hand, her left hand will tend to swing backward when her left foot moves forward while my right hand will tend to swing forward on the same step. (Take a moment to stand up and try it for yourself; you’ll see what I mean.) The result is an awkward cancellation of the two movements, with neither of our arms free to do what they would most like. Our movement is a bit unnatural, restricted, less productive than it could be.
So, we’ve made a decision: when walking hand-in-hand, we try to be exactly out of step with one another. If my right foot moves forward when her left does, then my right hand moves backward when her left hand does (see image above), and we enjoy an easy and natural arm swing as we walk together. We’re no longer moving at cross-purposes; ironic, since we’re seemingly out-of-sync.
As I think about leadership and followership, of working in team, I see a similar dynamic. Although there is often a valid desire for harmony and productivity in the workplace, the way to achieve that is not to have everyone doing the same thing at the same time. Instead, the best cooperation comes from each person experiencing freedom of movement, able to work naturally, and complementary.
Freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, but rather operating at ease within our relational dynamic. By working on different aspects of the project or task, by utilizing a variety of skills and talents, there is the opportunity to provide complementary support and encouragement, energizing one another rather than inhibiting each other’s progress. As a result, the whole group endeavor moves forward more comfortably and effectively, with less energy and inhibition.
Walking hand-in-hand, but without the expectation of being in lock-step with one another. In fact, being exactly–and intentionally–out of step means a greater variety of needs can be addressed, more bases covered, more gaps taken care of.
But sometimes, a different dynamic is needed. When my wife is feeling especially weak or out of breath, we change our connection: rather than walking hand-in-hand, we walk more closely together, with our arms locked (like walking down the aisle at our wedding). By drawing closer and tighter together, I can offer her better support in a time of need.
In this case, we’ve discovered that walking in sync is much more effective. In these circumstances, having drawn especially close together, our whole bodies start moving in sync with one another, left feet moving forward together, bodies swaying (waddling, at times) in rhythm.
Although this isn’t always the most natural way for me to walk, it is the most supportive. It allows me to lend the most strength to her as she walks. It allows me to relieve the maximum amount of burden that she’s carrying.
In our teams and workplaces, there will come times when a particular member is struggling with a particular task. In those instances, rather than applying ourselves in diverse ways (being intentionally out-of-sync), it’s time to come alongside, to use whatever strengths and abilities we have–even if not our best contributions–to provide help and support, to match what the other is doing, to meet a specific need, and to work together to overcome what would have worn one person down if left on their own.
So, how are you walking with those around you? And what kind of walking is necessary in this moment?
Are you independently going for a stroll? Are you holding hands, and fighting the unnatural feelings of being forced (or forcing others) into a rhythm and a role that just doesn’t suit? Are you holding hands, complementing one another’s efforts with your movements and the use of your energy? Or have you locked arms, and discovered the maximum support of spending a season in sync, joined together in a deep partnership of laboring closely together to overcome challenge and fatigue?
How are you walking now? And how should you be walking? How do you need others to walk with you?
For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:
Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Kirkdale Press, Feb 2016)
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