The Best Leaders Are Followers

An Amazon search on “leadership” yields 60,000 results. Followship: 27. It’s not even really a word.  And who wants to read books or take classes on great followership? It’s the leaders of the world that get the hype: Politicians, CEOs, pastors. And good leadership crowd music musician street performeris important. But who are they leading? And how are they following? Certainly we are all following in some capacity or another and it can feel demeaning at times. But could it be the art of following is actually more important to master? Truly, without the support of followers, leaders are simply eccentrics marching to their own drumbeat.

If you think you are leading and turn around to see no one following, then you are just taking a walk.
-Benjamin Hooks, former director of the NAACP.

The best followers frequently make good leaders. Unfortunately the opposite is also true. Poor followers make poor leaders. With wrong motivations, pride and a misguided goal to “make it to the top” leaders have used manipulation and charm to convince others to follow.  God’s plan, as is so often the case, is opposite to the popular leadership how-to: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Mark 9:35). “Consider others better than yourself” (Php 2:3). “The Son of Man came to serve” (Matt 20:28).  But that’s not our natural inclination. We equate leading with adult beard businessman confidencecompetence and following with inferiority.  We herald leaders as innovatators, trail-blazers, trend-setters. All true. All admirable. But does that make the rest of us consumers, groupies and copycats? Absolutely not. Not if we look at following the way God intended.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time following. Likely more than I have led. As a daughter, student, employee, wife. And in all cases there were times of deep admiration and severe frustration.  I knew my role. But when I asked myself why, in the sense of what caused my desire, my dedication, my devotion, I came up with three reasons:

1.) Following authority
This stems from a role and a dedication to obediance. Not always the most inspirational, but necessary. We follow teachers, even when they’re not very good. We follow the laws, even when we don’t understand. We follow our employers, even when they’re just plain wrong. There is definitely honor in obedience and a special strength to following because it’s the right thing to do even when our hearts might not be in it.

2.) Belief in the cause
The suffragettes, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity. Take your pick. Thousands of organizations, protecting human rights, supporting at-risk children,architecture boys brick wall bricks exposing animal cruelty, have surfaced over hundreds of years. You can agree or disagree with their platforms or causes, but no doubt they have their followers. The cause is bigger than any one person. The ideal is carried from leader to leader, and survives even periods of poor leadership. Ernest Coulter, the NYC county clerk who founded Big Brothers in 1904 said ” . . . make the little chap feel that there is at least one human being in this great city who takes a personal interest in him, who cares whether he lives or dies.” His passion for childen at risk would have the following of President Coolidge, President and Mrs. Franklin Roosvelt, Norman Rockwell and President Clinton. The leadership changed hands, but the momentum did not dwindle. He started with 39 volunteers and today the organization spans the globe.

I’ve spent hours volunteering for a variety of causes. Wanting to make a difference, these organizations resonated with my heart. I might or might not have held the actual leader in high regard, but the cause was right.

Jesus began a ministry that his followers called The Way. Eventually, we claimed a designation meant to belittle, and called ourselves “little Christs” or Christians.  And here we are more than 2000 years later, with hundreds of prophets and pastors taking up the banner, and Jesus’ followers still as dedicated, passionate and zealous. His way to salvation over-reached any pastor’s fall from the pulpit or church scandel. Like other causes the ideals retained their original appeal, and unlike any other organization the founder led a perfect life, died for all sin and brought us into a right relationship with the Creator of the universe. Kind of makes it the most important charity. That’s why it’s called the Good News.

3.) Belief in the person and their ideals
It’s easy to follow ideas we buy into. But when there is also a person we can get behind, that’s when the magic happens. They show all the characteristics of a good leader. They inspire, encourage and rally. The people who follow don’t just see the best in their leader, their leader gets them to see the very best in themselves.

Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our best leaders don’t just tell us the idea to follow, but exemplify the charge in their daily lives. The idea of “show don’t tell” and “practice what you preach” is taken up a notch. We can support a leader who presents an honorable idea. We will rally behind someone who encourages us to internalize that idea, make it our own and expand on it in a personal way.

Reverend Billy Graham, possibly the most beloved preacher of our time, was just such a leader. His daily life mirrored the exhortation he gave at the pulpit.

The test of a preacher is that his congregation goes away saying not, “What a lovely sermon!” but, “I will do something.”
-Rev. Billy Graham

Untitled designOne of my favourite followers was a character created by J.R.R. Tolkien in the realm of Middle Earth: Samwise Gamgee. Sam is given the task of following Frodo Baggins to the gates of evil to save Middle Earth. Over and over Sam’s loyalty is tested and he proves unwaveringly faithful. He supports, protects and encourages Frodo throughout the books, even when Frodo himself is weak, confused and disloyal. In fact, in a letter to his publisher, Tolkien suggests it is Sam who is the true hero of the book, not his master Frodo or even Aragorn, who would eventually be crowned king. Despite Sam’s acts of heroism he consistently defers to Frodo’s leadership.  The words Tolkien used for Sam were “heroic, determined, steadfast, loyal, virtuous, humble, noble and resolute.” Similarly the “ring bearers” of companies, organizations or ministry who are called to carry the burden of leadership must have followers who have all of those traits.

In the coming posts I will explore five styles of followership illustrated by five amazing followers in the Bible:

If you find yourself frustrated in a role of seeming submission, you’re in good company. Joshua the warrior, Ruth the dedicated daughter, David the king, Paul the apostle and Jesus the savior. No one could match our perfect savior in his loving guidance, lavish encouragement and relentless pursuit of his bride (the church). And he was perfect.  He both followed his Father’s instructions flawlessly and led his followers without error.

Each of these followers showed not only the value, but the critical need to be a follower. Their lives demonstrated that following and leading go hand-in-hand in the same person, not just different groups of people. Following takes every bit as much strength, resolve and determination as leading. Perhaps more.


4 thoughts on “The Best Leaders Are Followers

  1. Great post! I had a conversation earlier today with one of the VPs where I work (he’s a Christian, like me) about pride and humility. And he said that the concept of humility was not really introduced until about 2000 years ago (right around Jesus). And that before then there was just no concept in the languages, no documentation in the literature of humility as a virtue. To be a leader but also not just willing to be a follower, but excited to be one at that, it can take a lot of humility. Being a follower as a trait of leader is so crucial and biblical. Great stuff thanks for sharing!!


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