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Books for those in ministry organizations who desire to take their leadership, teams, governance, and ministry effectiveness to the next level.

11 Jul '08

Leaders and followers

Posted by T.J. Addington in church leadership, Healthy leaders, ministry teams


The first step to leadership is followership. Until we can follow well and respond well to those who are over us we will not be able to lead well. Followership demonstrates an appropriate willingness to place ourselves under the authority of others. If we are unwilling or unable to do that, what right do we have to expect others to do that to us?

Followership and leadership are not simply different phases of life: first I follow and then I lead. For the vast majority of us, leadership and followership are constant realities and to lead well we must continue to follow well. As a leader, I am responsible for a large organization. As a follower, I am, like those I lead, under authority. I am a follower and a leader and it is my responsibility to do both well.

I believe that ministry leaders must pay special attention to the discipline of following. I have watched leaders who followed well and those who have followed poorly. For those of us who lead others I think there are several temptations that we must resist if we are to lead and follow well.

The temptation to think we no longer need to listen to the authority above us

After all, we are leaders and leaders lead. There is a subtle difference between doing what our leaders ask us to do and truly honoring our leaders with respect, lifting them up and taking their advice and counsel seriously.

A pastor or ministry leader who does not respect his or her board - assuming that they know better - has chosen not to be a good follower. I have often watched ministry leaders simply ignore what the board has said. In one case I was a board member of a ministry and regardless of what the board decided, the leader simply did his own thing. I resigned. He did not need me,or the rest of the board. He did he want to follow his authority.

I am often amazed and saddened by the number of people in Christian ministry who call themselves leaders who really want no authority above them. At its worst it results in narcissism where leaders start to not only ignore the authority above them but to mistreat and violate those who report to them. There is a connection between respect for authority and respect for those for whom we are the authority.

The temptation to be cynical of those above us

OK, leaders have opinions. Some think their opinions are better than those of their leaders and develop an attitude of cynicism toward those above them. Even if their leaders make mistakes, and who does not, cynicism is a sign of poor followership, not great leadership. In fact, those who harbor cynical attitudes regarding their own authority are actually undermining their personal leadership because good team members do not trust leaders who distrust their own leaders. Why should they?

People do not want to follow those who cannot follow others. I will never elevate an individual to leadership in our organization who is a cynic of those above them. What it tells me is that we have someone who is a poor leader and an untrustworthy leader - regardless of how competent they are. cynicism is about followership - or lack of it, not leadership.

The temptation to develop loyalty to us as leaders but not to the organization as a whole

This happens all the time (see my post on "Leadership Default"). This is a subtle form of the first two temptations because what it communicates is that "I want you to be loyal and cooperative to me as a leader" while at the same time not communicating that "we are a part of a larger whole and together we must be loyal and cooperative to those above us."

Thus, pastors sometimes develop loyalty of the staff but don't insist that together they are loyal to the board - dividing staff and boards. Mission organizations see mid level leaders develop good teams but do not create an ethos where that team is cooperative with or in synergy with the larger organization. In these cases, leaders have not led well because they are not following well.

The "us/them" mentality that pervades so many ministries is actually nothing other than poor followership on the part of leaders.

Leaders are followers. As the Executive Director of ReachGlobal I am a leader. As a member of the senior team of the EFCA I am a follower. My ability to follow will directly impact my ability to lead. And, I will not follow someone who will not follow!

If you are a leader, what matters first is how well you can follow. How are you doing?