There is one social competency more difficult than leadership. That is the ability to follow well.
It takes deep intellectual and emotional preparation and skills to follow well.
A friend told me one time that if a person thinks they are leading, and they turn around and no one is following them, then they are not leading. They are merely out for a stroll.
That is tough truth for those of us who try to lead but painfully realize few are following!!!!
However, it is even more of a painful truth to those of us who claim to follow well we are missing are cues to do.
Scripture has much to teach us about both these areas.
First, Jesus was and remains a leader of indisputable skill. But he is also an amazing follower. There were times that Jesus had crowds pressing around him 2000 years ago and in 2018 those crowds have swelled to hundreds of millions strong. He is a LEADER!!! But he was foremost a follower and even when leading this kept him sustained in a journey that often found no one following him.
Some other observations:
Second, right after the full affirmation of Jesus at his baptism, he followed the Spirit into the wilderness…alone…. He had been fully affirmed by both John (behold the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world) and God (this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased). This gave him leader authority. But then he followed another authority. This confirmation of his role as leader still required following.
Third, there were times, when Jesus stepped out on a journey when no one followed him. To the casual observer this could be used to question if he was really a good leader. This got especially painful on his leadership to the cross. That type of leadership thins out the crowds. I am sure Satan (the complete opposite of a good follower by the way), used this fact to mock Jesus about his poor leadership PRECISELY when he was leading the best. “Where are your followers now?” was the insinuating words rolling off the lips of Satan and the angry Roman and Jewish leaders like puss out of acorrupted hearts.
Fourth, Jesus prepared us to follow well by warning us we would not always follow well at the current time or pace he needed us to.
In John 13, Simon Peter asked Jesus: “Lord, where are you going?”
Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.”
Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!
Fifth, tucked away in this conversation is hope for us who have not learned to follow well. He gave Peter a hope: “but you will follow later.” In another scene, Jesus shows his confidence as a leader to keep leading despite the temporary thinning of the crowd, when he prophecies: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27-28). He looks past the pain of dying alone to a futuristic reality is that millions would catch on to his style of leadership.
In conclusion, Jesus lead well because he followed well and kept following. This is the obvious message of the Garden of Gethsemane, backed up by his action on Calgary. When he said, “not my will but thine be done” he was in the excruciating pain of following. He was also in the glorious work of leading.
One of the best questions to ask when hiring a leader is have them tell you about their experiences of following. Hopefully, like Peter, they can talk about times they missed their cue or couldn’t stomach the humiliation or the pressure or the pain required of a true follower as well as tell about times they followed and that made them lead well.
I end with four invitations on the journey to follow well:
- See God’s hand in his use of the “other” leader: Are you able to identify how God is using the person you are trying to follow, even or especially if that person is making serious mistakes? I am not talking about blind obedience or naivety (#4 addresses that). But it is fostering a deep picture of how God might be piecing together your redemption and that of others in the messiness of your following well. When Judah lay in ruin and God used King Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel and his friends had to come to a view that God was still working. Finding his finger and the pulse of God and a whisper of His activity is your difficult castration takes some complex skill of following well.
- See what is unique in the “other.” Even bad leaders get to power by some unique gift or skill that we can see as evidence of their unique gifts. Celebrating that uniqueness, even when other aspects are not working well in the leader, is about following well.
- See what they can teach you. Following is primarily about learning well. Tracing God’s use of the leader and the unique aspect of their skills can open you up to find something in the leader worth emulating and learning from. Is that leader a good dresser? Is that leader agile in using social media? I am not supportive of one national leader right now in my world, but I do admire the fact he doesn’t drink alcohol. If everyone in the U.S. followed THIS ONE EXAMPLE of that leader, the US would be a wonderfully better place. Following looks for the positive in the other and seeks to learn from it.
- See with sober judgment. Following well requires sober judgment–keeping yourself an independent thinker that weighs facts and evidence to make creative decisions. What about this leaders actions will hurt him and his followers? Be willing, like Daniel’s friends, to show you follow well by not obeying bad commands. That is a deeper loyalty even to hot headed leader.
God, help us to follow like Jesus did.