ADCOM Q&A (leader vs. follower)

by Lorien E. Menhennett

I started a series several months ago in which I began answering some potential medical school interview questions. I haven’t written any posts on this in some time, but plan to pick that thread up this semester, beginning here.

Are you a leader or a follower? Why? 

This seems to be a common question in many medical school interview samplings that I have looked at. It would seem that the obvious answer to this question is “leader,” but I believe this question can really be looked at in a more nuanced way. And regardless, it’s the “why” that is the important part.

When you go to a restaurant, one where the hostess has to seat you, you wait in the foyer until your table is ready. Then you follow the hostess, usually single file, into the restaurant. Ever since I was a little kid, I have always led that family parade. This alone, of course, does not make me a leader. But it hinted to me early on that I liked to be out in front, in charge of things. Leading the pack.

As I got older and went off to school, I often found myself as the group leader on school projects and group discussions. In part because I was willing to work hard, in part because I was organized and good at keeping people from getting distracted. I was focused on the task at hand. But more than that, I was confident in these abilities. To be a leader, you have to first believe in yourself and what you are capable of doing.

As an adult though, especially in the professional realm, I realized that it wasn’t always my job to be the leader. In fact, sometimes it was my job to follow someone else. Like my boss. She (or he) was the one with more expertise, and I had something to learn in those situations.

That said, I believe there is some stratification in the leadership process. I followed my boss, yes, because she was the one in charge of the whole office; but I led the interns because I was the internship coordinator and was in charge of their learning environment and assignments. So clearly, it’s important to be able to do both, and to recognize your role in a particular situation.

If you enjoy leadership, though, and are good at it, I believe you will seek it out and find the opportunity to exercise those muscles in some way, no matter what your level on the hierarchical ladder. When I got my job as a textbook editor, for example, I started out at the very bottom as an assistant editor. But after about a year, I had earned the confidence of my superiors, who entrusted me with more responsibility. I took those responsibilities and asked for even more, because I felt I could contribute, I was capable, and I would enjoy the challenge. I ended up in charge of one section of our textbook review, though I of course reported to my editor. So really, being a leader and a follower can be intertwined.

Why am I a leader? I believe I have indirectly answered that question: I have self-confidence, I am organized, I am focused, I enjoy the challenge of leading people and projects. But I think there is a related quality that must be teased out of the “leadership” role, and that is teaching. When done well, leadership is very much about teaching others, about helping them to excel and improve, not just about making yourself look good. And I find great joy and fulfillment in that part of the leadership process.

When I was a textbook editor, I spent a great deal of time with one of my co-workers, who was unfamiliar with many of the computer “basics” I take for granted (“save as,” cutting and pasting, finding where you saved something, and so on). I spent hours of my own time coaching her on those skills, and could only smile as I watched her improve over the weeks. (She is now a dear friend.) I consider that a part of leadership, and see it as integral to what I do in the future.

So I am a leader when it is appropriate, a follower when that is appropriate, and whenever I can be, a teacher.