Leading the follower
Being a good Christian disciple does not mean doing what you’re told. Because Christian leadership is rooted in community, followers need to be active and engaged.
March 17, 2009 | One day about 20 years ago, Cal Turner Jr. was reviewing the performance of several new stores the Dollar General Corp. had opened in Miami.
One store was doing great business while every other store was a disaster. Turner, then-CEO of the far-flung discount chain, called the standout store seeking an explanation for its success.
“Mr. Turner,” the manager said, “when we get instructions from the home office that make sense, we do them. And when we get instructions that don’t make sense, we don’t.”
“It was pure genius,” said Turner, an active United Methodist layperson and co-author of the book, “Led to Follow.”
The Miami manager confirmed what Turner had long known: Followers matter. However carefully Turner and other executives prepared their strategic plans, however thoroughly they researched their product mix and set sales targets and promotions, it would be clerks and cashiers, assistant managers and managers in thousands of stores who made those plans work or not.
Questions to consider:
- Jesus invites his disciples to “Follow me,” not to “Come lead in my name.” In a world preoccupied with leadership, what do we make of Jesus’ invitation?
- How can leaders grow in their capacity to lead in a way that represents the values and ideals of the community?
- Leadership expert Ronald A. Heifetz writes about those who lead without formal organizational power. Are the best “followers” leaders without authority?
Today, when unprecedented attention is being focused on the subject of leadership, Turner and others are advocating for a greater focus on followership. For churches and church-related institutions -- organizations premised on one who said “Follow me” -- this is a call to remember that, for Christians, leadership is rooted in community and that Christian leaders must embody the values of those whom they lead.
Though the lines between leadership and followership are often blurred, those in authority need to cultivate and nurture good followers through listening, encouraging and empowering them.
“Followers are important, every bit as important as leaders,” said Barbara Kellerman, author of the book, “Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders.” “Just as we have overestimated the importance of leaders, so too have we underestimated the importance of followers.”
Expecting and demanding more from those who lead, followers are increasingly influential and able to exert their own power in often surprising ways -- a development that those in positions of authority ignore at their own peril, said Kellerman, the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
In her book, Kellerman cites examples of such ousted leaders as Harvard University ex-President Lawrence H. Summers and World Bank ex-President Paul Wolfowitz. Examples abound in the church world, too. Catholic archdioceses in Boston, New Orleans and other cities have found their plans to close local parishes disrupted by parishioners who simply refused to leave, changing locks on the doors and keeping around-the-clock vigils. Want extreme examples of church folk using modern technology to do an end run around traditional authority? Consider the online confessional and even online Eucharist.
Leadership, followership and the church
Although Kellerman’s work is aimed primarily at a secular audience, it should resonate with those in churches and church-related institutions, which have long struggled with the relationship between leaders and followers, said Jack Carroll, Williams Professor Emeritus of Religion and Society at Duke Divinity School.
“There is no one way of leading and following,” Carroll said. “It is situational and depends on whether people are acting out of faith rather than their own self-interest. But given that caveat, you don’t want people who see the pastor as a hired hand. You want pastors who exercise authority and leadership and a strong laity who are able to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and who are knowledgeable enough about faith to engage in the conversation.”
The reasons for the growing importance of followers are many, Kellerman said. The long arc of history, from the late 18th century onward, has been about the devolution of power downward. As a result of cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s, people today are more willing to question authority. Authority is no longer granted simply because someone holds a particular position or office, but must instead be earned.
In fact, the lines between leader and follower are not as distinct as they used to be and are becoming blurred. Before any of us are leaders, all of us are followers, Kellerman wrote. Every leader is a follower, but not all followers are leaders.
“People move in and out of those roles with any given organization,” she said. “They can be a follower in one role and a leader in another.”
Carroll said this blurred and shifting relationship between leaders and followers -- the push and pull between clergy and laity -- has been at the core of the church in America from the moment the first colonists stepped ashore. A sociologist of religion, Carroll spent most of his academic career studying congregational life, ministry and religious trends in the United States. In 1991, Carroll explored the role of pastoral authority in the book, “As One with Authority.”
For much of the last half of the 20th century, from the 1970s onward, many church observers bemoaned a “crisis of authority” in pastoral ministry. Citing many of the same trends noted by Kellerman, they feared that clergy no longer possessed the same authority and leadership that they once had.
From that crisis came a growing awareness of the relational aspects of ministry, Carroll said, a deeper understanding that pastor and laity have complementary roles to play.