The Importance of Being Able to Follow
Commander Mormont to Jon Snow: “You want to lead one day? Then learn how to follow.”
- Game of Thrones season two episode one.
I was reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War with a commentary by an American Marine Corps officer, Samuel B. Griffith. I encountered an interesting story:
“When Wu Ch’i fought against Ch’in, there was an officer who before battle was joined was unable to control his ardour. He advanced and took a pair of heads and returned. Wu Ch’i ordered him to be beheaded.
The Army commissioner admonished him, saying: “This is a talented officer, you should not behead him.”
Wu Ch’i replied: “I am confident he is an officer of talent, but he is disobedient.”
Thereupon he beheaded him.”
Why was the officer’s disobedience grounds for execution? A cynical view may be to condemn Wu Ch’i as being an arrogant and tyrannical leader, not allowing for any act of personal glory beyond his command. But I don’t think this is a correct conclusion.
An army is a machine. And in a machine, many individual parts play a small role in a greater whole. The whole can only operate so long as the individuals do their job. When the individuals no longer do their job, or lose sight of their role in the greater whole, they become faulty and no longer serve the machine. When the officer lost sight of the greater role, they became a liability to the army.
The author recited this story to reinforce how military doctrine changed from traditional forms of combat to a highly structured and methodical operation of warfare. Objectively speaking, the structured and methodical approach is more effective than traditional modes of combat. However, this can only be maintained by discipline and obedience. If the individual parts do not follow their role or lose sight of the greater whole, then the system collapses.
So, why does this matter?
Well, it’s not just an interesting story that highlights the historical shift in Chinese warfare, but this idea reflects a deeper truth of human nature. It’s not just in the military where disciplined and operational structures exists. This ‘command structure’ is also found in corporations, education, sports teams, volunteer events, healthcare, and religious groups, among others. Human beings can accomplish greater achievements and overcome unthinkable obstacles when they operate together as a group. This is why humans live together in the first place. It has been said that “Man is a social animal” but this is by necessity rather than choice.
I know quite a few young people who are as talented as the officer in the story, and equally undisciplined. I hear it all time, and you’ve probably heard it too when people say “I don’t like being told what to do” or “I can’t work for a boss.” Heck, maybe you are that person. But it has to be understood that the alternative is isolation. Who’s going to want to employ someone who can’t follow instructions? Who’ll want to work with someone who always acts as an individual rather than a team member? Who’s going to hire someone who has a reputation for acting outside of the rules? If you want to win, then you have to play the game.
This is a hard pill for natural leaders to swallow, but it’s the best medicine they can take. If you don’t like following orders and being told what to do, you’ll have to attain a position where you can give instruction and lead others. How do you do this? Well it’s pretty difficult to go out there and start that from the ground up. A more efficient way is climbing the ranks. Demonstrate yourself as someone who’s capable of not just following orders.
But you have to start somewhere, and it’s usually at the bottom. A former colleague of mine used to run kitchens and would tell his complaining dishwashers, “You have the most important job here. We need you. Without you, I have nothing to cook with and customers have nothing to eat off of. Do a good job with this and then you’ll get into the kitchen.” And this is absolutely true with how the world works. At the grocery store where I used to work, everyone started with pushing buggies and following commands. The same is true with every job, organization, and career out there. Start from the bottom, swallow your pride, work your way up, and put your ego aside.
An exchange from Game of Thrones represents this well. When faced with this unfortunate reality of starting from the bottom and following orders, Commander Mormont tells Jon Snow:
“You want to lead one day? Then learn how to follow.”