How to be a Good Leader…er, Follower


Watched any good debates lately?
Read any impassioned articles about the state of our tragically-divided union?
Had any stirring convos about glass ceilings or the Peter principle or micromanagement or lip service?
Leadership is on our minds a lot, yes?

You know what’s not on our minds much? Followership, or the art of being a good follower.

Don’t ask me, ask Google. There are thousands of articles on leadership, on how to be a good leader, on how to recognize a bad one, yada, yada, yada.

Not so much on being a follower. And the few hundred “follower” articles out there don’t seem to be getting much traffic (kind of like this blog).

I’m going to participate in the futility: Instead of a top 7 or 10 or 20 list of qualities of a good leader, here are a mere five qualities of a good follower.

1) Pray for your leaders.
All of them. Even the ones who won’t know your name unless you screw something up. Even the condescending ones. Even the control freak/micro-managing ones. Even the hopelessly-in-over-their-heads ones. Especially them.

Like most folks, I frequently face the temptation to bash people in leadership. I don’t always resist, but I do have a few non-negotiables. I taught my kids never to trash-talk or rail against a pastor. There are too many Old Testament examples of that kind of stuff ending tragically for my comfort. No being swallowed by sand for this chick

I also refuse to speak ill of a sitting president. I try to assume of pastors and presidents what I hope others assume of me: No matter what I’ve heard, I don’t have the full picture, I don’t know all the facts, and I probably couldn’t do any better. My role is to stay in my lane and pray.

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy‬ ‭2:1-2)

This is no basic, perfunctory suggestion. And it’s not easy. Praying for people in power–really praying for them–is hard work. What’s easy is getting fed up with, disgusted over, outraged at what passes for leadership at times. But leaders are people, and people are flawed, sometimes fatally so.

Ironically, my commitment to pray for the leadership of my church led to a test of that very commitment. I’ll skip the details, but I was blindsided by a situation that left me discouraged. I could have gotten offended; I could have given up. I chose to let it go and keep praying.  It was worth it.

After years of repeatedly wrestling my arrogance to the mat, I finally understand that while I may not agree with or appreciate every decision my leaders make, they don’t answer to me. Surprising, huh? My commentary on them–and I can so do commentary–is never rewarded, but my prayer for them is.

2) Listen to your leaders. Really listen.
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”‭‭(John‬ ‭10:27)

I teach at a high school, so I explain, instruct, admonish, and monitor young people a minimum of seven hours a day. Much of that time is spent repeating perfectly clear instructions to kids who practice tuning out. Unfortunately, that is not just a kid problem.

We can all be selective listeners, and many of us are more distracted than ever. This can be maddening for leaders, who have the challenging task of disseminating information to people of varying degrees of comprehension. It’s exhausting to have to repeat information to folks who require individual attention because of their inattentiveness, and a leader’s job is already demanding enough. Church leaders have the particularly frustrating, entirely too frequent task of having to leave the 99 to go after the one who has wandered because he wasn’t paying attention.

“He that has ears, let him hear”…please. We need to help our leaders preserve their energy for leading the herd to greener pastures, rather than expending it explaining/restating every basic command.
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3) Emulate your leader’s good qualities.
That doesn’t mean to mimic a leader’s behavior. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but it’s still flattery, which is false…and creepy.

Emulation is striving to live up to a good example, and any leader worth his/her salt is a good example of something. (Or a terrible warning. If that’s the case, see #1 above.)

Observe how your leaders treat people, how they handle conflict, how they inspire others, how they manage the work space, how they delegate, how receptive they are to input, how they handle mistakes, how they solve problems, how they manage resources, how fair they are, how encouraging they are, how willing they are to give praise/admit fault/make changes, how organized/knowledgable/optimistic they are. Finding in your leaders strengths you lack and striving to make those part of your character is a compliment to them and an asset to you.

“Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews‬ ‭13:7)

4) Work alongside your leaders.
This one can be tough. Leaders have to lead; they have to have followers, not a bunch of co-leaders. But not all leaders–even Christian ones–perceive their role the way the Bible defines it. Remember what Jesus said? “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew‬ ‭20:25-28)

Unfortunately, there are some leaders who skipped the humble-servant part of leadership training. They avoid collaboration; suggestions are dismissed; differences of opinion are treated as personal attacks. They are sovereigns rather than shepherds, a posture that is guaranteed to devastate morale and destroy an organization. (See #1)

Just as unfortunately there are leaders who function as if their job description is to find ways to delegate everything they don’t want to be bothered with. They are figureheads–often pleasant ones–whose lack of genuine involvement in the nitty gritty workings of their organization leaves gaps to be filled by overwhelmed subordinates. (See #1)

But there are leaders who are striving to lead graciously, humbly, and with integrity. When we are blessed with leaders like that, we should be honored to be their followers. We can then take our cue from Jesus’s words to his entourage: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)

In other words, even as your leader has set aside his/her personal agenda for what’s best for the organization, so must you set aside yours. Even as your leader has shouldered the cross he was called to bear, so must you shoulder yours. Even as your leader is walking the path plotted out for him, so must you walk yours. The world has enough wannabes. There are plenty of Monday-morning quarterbacks making calls from thread-bare recliners. The cheap seats are full of folks hoping to see a little action. What our leaders need are people who will work alongside them.

5) Communicate kindly and honestly with them.
“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians‬ ‭4:25-27‬)

And…

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians‬ ‭4:29‬)

Newsflash: Leaders do not have superpowers. They do not read minds. They do not have the time or the energy or the wherewithal to predict every crisis an organization may face, to know how every change will affect the bottom line, the stakeholders, or you. They do not have all the answers. And they do not have a special dispensation from God that makes them impervious to rudeness or gossip or fatigue or frustration. Frequent whining, complaining, and trash talking is bad form for followers, whereas meaningful input is a godsend to a good leader.

Ideally, a leader would expect, even invite, his/her followers to communicate openly about matters essential to the organization. The key word there is ideally. If followers aren’t encouraged to give input, the temptation may be to remain frustrated and disgruntledled, to never approach leadership with a legitimate question, concern, or suggestion for fear of an unpleasant response. That happens. Do it anyway. If those in the trenches know there’s an issue that can hurt the organization, they have an obligation to thoughtfully and humbly bring the concern to leadership, whatever the consequences.

If you “speak the truth in love” but you’re treated rudely, you aren’t heard, you end up with a target on your back or a price on your head, and if your ability to be a faithful follower after that failed attempt becomes questionable at best, leave. Seriously. But first, see #1.

That’s the Word, and I’m a witness.

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It’s (not) All Good

Word and Witness


I remember the first time anyone ever directed “it’s all good” at me: year one of teaching, Little Rock School District, a zoo of a junior high class. Really. Taurus the Bull, Leo the Lion, Felix the Cat, Fish, Baby Bop…and, me, a bit of a momma bear.

I loved those kids. I often shut them down, but I rarely wrote them up. Rarely. One day, a girl pushed our very broad envelope, so I handed her a discipline slip. She looked at the slip, looked at me, and with a slow shake of her head quipped, “It’s all good, Ms. V. It’s all good.”

Translation: Despite my momentary sojourn into old-school teacher mode, she wasn’t messed up. We were still good.

I learned a lot from my students that year. The things they were dealing with at home were often far from good, and there was little they could…

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It’s (not) All Good


I remember the first time anyone ever directed “it’s all good” at me: year one of teaching, Little Rock School District, a zoo of a junior high class. Really. Taurus the Bull, Leo the Lion, Felix the Cat, Fish, Baby Bop…and, me, a bit of a momma bear.

I loved those kids. I often shut them down, but I rarely wrote them up. Rarely. One day, a girl pushed our very broad envelope, so I handed her a discipline slip. She looked at the slip, looked at me, and with a slow shake of her head quipped, “It’s all good, Ms. V. It’s all good.”

Translation: Despite my momentary sojourn into old-school teacher mode, she wasn’t messed up. We were still good.

I learned a lot from my students that year. The things they were dealing with at home were often far from good, and there was little they could do but roll with the punches. In solidarity with them, I learned to say “it’s all good” even when it wasn’t good at all.

Then there was the day when one of the really good kids had a really bad moment. Felix, who was missing a few front teeth courtesy some nasty brawls, started messing with Tanya, who was kind and quiet and almost prudishly reserved. Before I could intervene, she went off on him, like verbally took him o-u-t. A stunned Felix slumped back in his seat and drawled, “Tanya, I didn’t know you could talk like that. I thought you was good.”

Oh, heck to the no! With an oh-snap that was on point, our class’s holiness-movement model spat back, “If I was so d*** good, I could make you some teeth!”

Judge me: I laughed. Felix laughed. The whole class laughed. Then we apologized to the frustrated teacher on the other side of the ply board wall and went on to cover a good bit of grammar sprinkled with shared-joke giggles. It had started off rocky, but that turned out to be a good day.

Good is one of those words like love and blessed and awesome that people use too liberally to take very seriously. We talk about good people, good jobs, good gravy (why do people struggle with this? gravy is easy; biscuits are hard). We say good luck, good riddance, good grief, and, yes, it’s all good.

And it is all good. Except when it’s not.

Cue Genesis.

The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil….And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:9,16-17)

“You will not certainly die [false]” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil [true].” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Genesis‬ 3: 4-6)

That tree looked good and was good for food, but it wasn’t good for man to eat it any more than it was good for him to be alone. Except that whole not being alone thing came back to bite him–pun intended–that day. Eve’s purpose and position as co-laborer and co-steward were good. But she listened to a good speech, desired what appeared to be a good thing, and made a good case for her husband to taste and see with her. And so he did. That was not good.

Well, if they weren’t supposed to eat that fruit, what on earth–literally–was it good for?

Good question.

The tree of knowledge of good and evil was part of the “very good” creation. Since ugly and yucky weren’t things yet, it carried with it no evidence of its negative consequences. Even the consequences themselves may have been nearly impossible for its potential victims to grasp until it was too late.

Which doesn’t seem fair. Sort of like it’s not fair that ice cream looks and tastes fantastic. There is nothing in that sweet, creamy goodness loaded with delightful surprises and covered in tantalizing toppings that indicates its consequence is ill-fitting clothing. Wouldn’t it be good if stuff that was bad for us tasted bad and the stuff that was good for us–like exercise and honesty and praying for our enemies–was easy?

Actually, no. Part of what makes something good is that we get to choose it. Or not.

Because some of the stuff that’s bad for us does taste, smell, feel bad, and we partake of it anyway.

Because we are not always good at making wise decisions whatever the warning…says every tobacco user, heavy drinker, fast-food lover, thrill seeker everywhere.

Because we are too fickle and subjective to be trusted with assigning value to things based on our flawed perceptions, which can be vastly different from other people’s perceptions. Like, there are ACTUAL PEOPLE who do not like ice cream! What the what?!

Because dominion, aka stewardship, requires decisions that aren’t based on personal, often superficial preferences.

Because God commanded. There’s the answer.

To be his stewards, we have to follow his instructions, heed his commands. Which means there has to be something about which he must instruct or command us that requires we choose his will over our desire.

Just as a toddler has no concept of gravity and its effect on his  body, and teenagers have no concept of physics and its effect on the 3000 lb death machines they try to drift across a wet parking lot, Adam and Eve had no concept of the huge chasm between the good they had and the evil they had not yet encountered. And they had no concept of death.

But they knew God.

They’d had the opportunity to “taste and see” that He was good. They’d had the chance to choose obedience over personal preference. They’d heard him say, “Everything is good, but not everything is beneficial.” Well, sort of. Actually, Paul said something like that in his first letter to the Corinthians because some of the folks in the early church were channeling the 21st century and were all like “you can’t judge me!” and “I’ve got my rights!” and “screw legalism!” Okay, not in those exact words. And Paul was all like, “No one should seek his own good, but the good of others” (1 Corinthians‬ ‭10:23-24), which was as hard to do then as it is now. But it’s good.

“There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” The Bible.

And

“All that glisters [glitters] is not gold.” Not the Bible. Shakespeare, et al. Merchant of Venice. About, of all things, a beautiful girl and a coffin. If this prince named Morocco wanted Portia, he had to choose the right coffin–gold, silver, or lead–based on their cryptic inscriptions. The message within his choice would determine his fate. He picked the gold one, because, hello, GOLD. And he was sure its promise of “what many men desire” meant he’d get the girl. And the fortune. Especially the fortune. He was wrong.

The message concealed in the golden coffin was this: “All the glisters is not gold–Often you have heard that told. Many a man his life hath sold but my outside to behold. Gilded tombs do worms enfold. Had you been as wise as bold…your answer had not been inscrolled” etc, etc, bye, Felicia–I mean, Morocco.

If Morocco hadn’t been a shallow, self-centered jerk seeking his own “good” rather than what was good for Portia, he would have recognized which inscription led to the prize. But he didn’t have the good sense to choose the plain lead coffin that on the outside read “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” and on the inside offered him the best of the kingdom.

You see, what those kids in my first classroom taught me is that it’s all good even when it’s not. Sometimes it’s ugly and confusing. Sometimes it’s aggravating and exhausting. Sometimes it’s just plain dumb. But if we resist the urge to give in to our restlessness and recklessness, there remains a reward.  For them it was the ability to shake off the small stuff and to laugh when that wasn’t the easiest option.

For all of us the reward is this: If we love God and remain steadfast in his chosen purpose for us, He will do what only He can do. He will cause all the not-so-good things to work together for our good. (Romans 8:28)

Raise your hand if you knew I’d go there…

And here:

“…But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James‬ ‭1:17‬)

That’s the Word, and I’m a witness.