Don’t be a leader; be a follower

If you go to any bookstore, you’ll find a section of books devoted to Leadership. Podcasts are built around the idea of helping people become leaders, and our culture has placed a premium on the value of being a leader – in the home, at work, and in just about every other organization known to man. Leadership is sold in the form of a plaque or certificate for attending a conference or workshop, and upon completion the attendees are declared Leaders! Seemingly every parent wants their kid to be a leader. Ever notice that? They tell their sons and daughters, “Don’t be a follower, be a leader”, mainly out of a fear that they will end up following the class clown or the kid who doesn’t shower regularly! And I’m guilty for having done that to my children as well. But the truth is, very few people possess the qualities, abilities and drive to be a leader. Most of us are followers.

Don’t believe me? Look into every organization, every team, every group, and you’ll find that there are very few leaders and a lot of followers. Consider a football team; one quarterback, 52 other players. Consider a small business: one owner, 5-10 employees. Consider a cruise ship; one captain, many crew and passengers. Consider a social media platform like Twitter, in which there are 150,000 verified accounts (meaning famous people we in culture often look to as our leaders) out of 300,000,000 total accounts. Consider Jesus’ ministry; one leader, 12 followers, and those who claim to be Christians are defined as followers of Jesus, not leaders of Jesus.

The truth is, most of us aren’t built for leadership, nor are we qualified to lead. Leadership requires certain skills, experiences and attributes that are unique and rare. Leadership requires an acceptance of responsibility for the outcomes, either good or bad. Ever notice how the manager of a baseball team often is fired when the players perform poorly? The manager doesn’t make one pitch or take a single at-bat, but he is solely responsible for the failure of a team to perform.

I remember vividly watching the University of Alabama in a College Football Playoff game this season in which the offensive lineman were called for penalties on consecutive plays. When the drive stalled and the offense walked off the field, Alabama’s Head Coach Nick Saban went right after his quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, not the lineman who committed the penalties. He chewed Tua out with vigor, and Tua accepted it with humility, as is his custom. Tua was the leader of the offense and, therefore, responsible for the penalties and the failure of the offense to score points. He knew it, Coach Saban knew it, and that is one of the reasons they have won five National Championships in the past 10 years.

Let’s just face the facts: most of us are built for followership. And yes, that’s a word, a real word in a real dictionary. Webster’s, in fact, but it’s not a word we celebrate or promote. However, it’s time to start celebrating and promoting what it means to be a follower.

Followership /ˈfälōərˌ SHip/ (noun): the capacity or willingness to follow a leader.

The capacity (ability) or willingness (desire) to follow a leader. Notice this definition does not give way for someone who is lazy or dis-engaged. Being a great follower is more than clicking a button on your phone. Being a great follower is more than simply having a job or making a team. Genuine followership requires intention, commitment, devotion, humility, energy, effort and focus. It’s not for the weak or faint of heart, but it’s necessary for any organization to be successful.

Here are four tips to becoming a better follower:

  1. Be selective when choosing a leader to follow (when possible). In some situations, we don’t have a choice who the leader is, but at other times, our followership is completely up to us. In these times, we need to carefully consider the leader and the cause to which we choose to devote our time and energy. Spend time getting to know the leader and the organization before jumping in. This is true for which church to attend, which charitable causes to support and often which job offer to accept.
  2. Support and encourage the leader. Leadership can be very lonely and discouraging, especially when goals aren’t being met and tough decisions have to be made. Send a note of encouragement, and don’t talk negatively behind the leader’s back. The fastest way to destroy any organization is through gossip. Be a cheerleader to the leader and to those following alongside you.
  3. Don’t be concerned with who gets the credit. Harry S Truman, the 33rd President of the United States once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” What a simple, concise reminder to put our head down and get to work, not allowing ourselves to be concerned about being acknowledged. We all want to be acknowledged for our work, and a good leader will acknowledge good work, but that can’t be the reason we work hard or support our leaders. The Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters”. Work for an Audience of One, and don’t be concerned about who gets the credit.
  4. Bring the best version of you to your organization, every moment, every day. This is far and away the most important quality of a follower. No matter what organization we’re with, no matter who we are following, it is imperative that we bring our best to every situation we encounter – mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually and relationally. This means we would be wise to always be learning. We would be wise to spend time in thought and to share those thoughts with those in our lives with whom we trust. We would be wise to have a daily exercise routine. We would be wise to seek God and our purpose in life as a result of that pursuit. We would be wise to foster healthy relationships that value communication and forgiveness. And we would be wise to spend time with others also pursuing health in these areas. Proverbs 13:20 says, “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.”

Followership, genuine followership, is most critical for all of us to pursue, as it is the seed of quality leadership. Who are we following today and how can we become better followers in the chance that we become the leaders of tomorrow?

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