Warren Bennis, famous for writing books on leadership, recently passed away at age 89. In 1985 he co-wrote Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge, a bestseller that began a publishing avalanche of leadership books.
Amazon has more than 150,000 books with “leadership” in the title. Many of these books, however, neglect a significant aspect of good leadership. Most leadership approaches emphasize, as Bennis’ first book suggests, “strategies for taking charge.”
But it is dangerous to define leadership without addressing an essential but seemingly paradoxical characteristic of leadership—the ability to be a follower. A good leader, especially a spiritual leader, must practice “followership.”
Jesus was first a follower. The salvation story pivots on Jesus’ willingness to relinquish His personal authority. This self-emptying of Christ is the basis for incarnational redemption. Jesus did His Father’s will; He did nothing on His own.
The defining moment for this leadership pattern was when Jesus cried, “Not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42, NIV). He modeled following as a way of leading and rejected conventional forms of leadership when He cautioned His disciples against lording it over others (Luke 22:24-27).
Jesus did not reject the legitimacy of authority or belittle the skills necessary to lead; but He made it clear that true leadership is confirmed by the willingness to follow.
Jesus’ disciples were “first-followers.” Jesus began His relationship with the disciples with two simple words: “Follow me.” The disciples, who would become leaders in the early church, were first learners, seekers, devotees.
Putting our lives in the hands of another requires vulnerability. Only leaders who know this experientially and viscerally should lead others. Many authoritarian leaders have never submitted to another person, or they have forgotten how easy it is for a follower to be wounded.
Only “first-followers” became leaders. My point is twofold: First, only follow a follower. Make sure your leaders follow their leaders. Beware of leaders who have never served on a team or who have never learned the discipline of sitting at the Lord’s (or anyone’s) feet (Luke 10:39).
Second, those of us who are leaders must remain engaged followers. We must submit to spiritual authority. We must be open to learning and to being evaluated and “discipled.” We must strive to respond to our leaders the way we want our followers to respond to us.
I have more leadership responsibility now than ever before, and I am acutely aware of my need to follow well. I want to follow Jesus closely, but I also need to follow imperfect human leaders. Even though they are flawed, I need their discipline, protection and wisdom. And I pray that they will be good followers, too, for it is this rich and thick web of followership that makes up the true body of Christ.
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