Over the last couple of weeks in our leadership class, we’ve been mainly focused on two questions of leadership:
- What is leadership?
- Who leads?
Those conversations took us in some interesting directions, but today we found an entirely different tangent to pursue.
Today we talked about followers.
Today we wondered if leadership is actually something that is offered by erstwhile leaders at all, or rather whether it’s something that is sought, recognised, and even bestowed by a group of followers.
We talked about the little known notion of ‘followership’.
When all the attention in our talk about the future is on seeking a higher quality of leadership, finding new leadership theories, developing the leaders within our community, or bringing in wildly brilliant leaders from outside….the theory of followership suggests that we perhaps ought to be focusing our attention elsewhere.
The success of any enterprise, or organisation is largely attributable to the quality of the followers, the community of people who identify as “we” and who collectively seek after common goals. The leader might help to organise and equip, and even to recognise the vision and purpose that is hidden within the group of followers….but it’s the followers that matter most.
Or so my understanding of the theory goes.
And to be truthful, it kind of rings true. It’s hard to be a great leader on your own. In fact there’s no leadership in action at all if its not recognised as such by a group of followers.
Somehow in our world, we’ve managed to bestow negative connotations on the word follower. Say it out loud. Let it roll off your tongue. Follower. It’s hard to say without thinking of sheep, of uncritical, unthinking flock. Followers bad. Leaders good.
The truth could hardly be more different. And as a Christian, I should know that. Jesus didn’t ask us to be unthinking, uncritical, automatons. Sheep-like followers.
Jesus did call us to follow, but in a sense to follow with the best of who we are. To bring all our giftedness, all our talent, all our capacity to reason, to think, to analyse, to critique and to act. To join with God’s purposes for the world with all that we are.
In that light the famous question “what would Jesus do?” is the wrong question. It could be construed as the question of a sheep-like follower. Perhaps the better question (though a little less sexy and not quite as neat) is to say “as one called to bring all I have to follow Jesus, what should I do?”
I’m patenting that and having bracelets made up. “AOCTBAIHTFJWSID”. They’re going to be big sellers.
The question of course, for those thinking about what leadership means, is what to do with this notion of followership. I think there are a few clues, a few places to start:
1. Recognise that within the group or community there is an astonishing capacity, a broad range of gifts and skills, and the potential to transform the world (or at least that part of it to which we have access).
2. Recognise that within the group or community there is (either overtly or tucked away) a vision – a sense of who we want to be, what we want to achieve, how we want our (collective) life to feel and look.
3. The task of the leader is to recognise what’s there and help give expression to it, to sharpen it, to identify as one with the community, to want and work for the community at its very, very best – and to find ways of organising, resourcing and encouraging to release that best within it.
4. The task of the leader is to love followers. Love them.
Maybe it’s time to reclaim the word followers. Followers rock. Followers are the future. Followers (and I’m not even joking a little bit) will save the world.
NB: This is the third in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College