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.
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)
“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.