Every now and then it’s a good idea to look over your shoulder and check, says author Bill Boyajian.

I was once  told a story about a jet airliner that was carrying executives from many countries, including a tribal chieftain from the interior of Brazil.  The plane went down in the jungle near the Amazon River. All the leaders survived, but guess who emerged as the one to lead them out of trouble. You got it – the tribal chieftain. He became the leader of the leaders because he knew what to do next, why it was important, and how to bring the resources to bear to get things done.  He knew how to lead in that environment, and that was all it took for every executive to get in line and follow him. This simple story illustrates a crucial point. Understanding the context of your leadership – knowing how, when, where, and why you are leading – is critical to your success.

Not every leadership assignment has your name on it, but those that do call for extraordinary action on you part. The key is to be ready and to respond quickly to the call. Knowing how to adapt to one’s environment is a secret to leading.  It is also a secret to success. People have long debated whether you can be a good leader without first being a good follower. In My Personal Best, John Wooden emphatically stated, “Before you can be a good leader, you must be a good follower.” In Leadership Jazz, Max DePree put it this way: “While becoming a good follower is not the only way to become a good leader, it can be very important training. If one is already a leader, the lessons of following are especially appropriate.  Leaders understand the essential contributions as well as the limitations of good followers. Experience in this case is the best teacher.” I believe you can be a good leader if you understand what it means to follow.

Great leaders also know when to follow someone else’s lead by being open to new ideas and the context of every situation.  They must also understand and appreciate the expertise that others bring to the table. Ask yourself this question: Why would anyone want to be led by you? How is it that people call themselves leaders when they don’t have a following?  When we become leaders people follow, we demonstrate our leadership through their followership.  Said another way, when people look to us for leadership, they validate our lead and affirm our call.

Followership is a natural companion – a true measure – of good leadership. Our job is to communicate – clearly and often – with followers.  Followers believe what good leaders say and do, and trust them for what they may not yet know or understand.  This isn’t blind faith. It is a faith based on their confidence in those leading, the result of past experiences, and the good character and reputation of those in charge. Employees follow business leaders because they are inspired. Volunteers follow nonprofit leaders because they believe in them and in the cause they represent. One of the greatest mistakes you can make as a leader is to assume that your followers are like you. They aren’t. That’s why they follow.  If they were like you, they’d be leading and you might be following. There is nothing wrong with followers. You need them. You can’t be a leader without them.

But you also need to understand how they think and what motivates them to follow. Do that well and you’ll soon be leading. Remember, it’s not how well you think you’re leading. It’s how much your followers believe it.  Look over your shoulder from time to time to see who’s following. Often, the first thing to go in times of crisis is our leadership.

In The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, John Maxwell reminds us: “How a leader deals with the circumstances of life tell you many things about his character.  Crisis doesn’t necessarily make our character, but it certainly does reveal it.” Under heat and pressure, carbon can be transformed into a beautiful diamond crystal, or it can turn into common graphite. In the same way, our character can be shaped – one way or the other – by the heat and pressure we face when leading. So character is that deeply seated set of internal qualities that defines us as individuals and determines how we will act (and react) under pressure.

The attributes that characterize each of us will be reflected in the decisions we make in a crisis. These same ingrained traits determine how we will react to temptation, especially when no one else is around or when no one would ever know the outcome of our actions. People of character don’t cut ethical corners; instead, they accept the reality of circumstances and develop strategies to deal with them. They don’t blame others but, rather, do the right thing, not necessarily the easy thing.

True leaders are like tall trees – possessing deep-rooted foundations; the deeper the foundations of their character, the greater their capacity to lead. Character is our inner self, our total being, even – or perhaps especially – when no one is around. Great character almost always leads to great results because people of character are introspective. They are aware of their strengths and their shortcomings. They know how to look deep inside to find the value of virtue but are not swayed by personal power or influence or the lure of self-importance. Better than you may think, followers know your character. They watch you over time and form opinions based on what they see. Those opinions, which are rooted in your character, are reflected in your reputation.

Bill Boyajian is author of the book Developing the Mind of a Leader. Previously president of the Gemological Institute of America, he now provides leadership and business consulting to growth-minded firms. bill@billboyajianassociates.com