[This essay was first published on the Classical Conversations blog.]
Are you a good follower? Are you teaching your children and students to be good followers? I can’t say I’m a success at either, but I want to be.
We know George Washington famously crossed the Delaware, but wasn’t it Washington and his army that crossed? Wasn’t Washington’s victory at Trenton due to his army defeating the Hessians? Or consider Steve Jobs. He received much praise for Apple’s success, but the work was largely done by others. Or consider a great teacher. Does not that greatness require great students as well? You see, there is a connection between great leaders and great followers. Look at the history of Christianity. Christ is our Lord and leader, and we are called to be followers. The apostles were great followers from Pentecost onwards, and we are the inheritors of their choices and actions. The world needs great followers.
If we call the art of being a leader, leadership, then we should call the art of being a follower, followership. What a strange word, follwership. Much focus has been heaped on leadership, so much so that we are likely to forget about the importance of following. Peruse any bookstore and one is likely to find a plethora of books on leadership and none on followership. Our society denigrates the idea of being a “mere” follower, but it shouldn’t. In fact, as educators we should make it our goal to create great followers.
Throughout our lives we will have many more opportunities to follow than to lead, and we will all be followers most of the time. If this is true, then shouldn’t we seek to be the best and most virtuous followers we can be? What we often don’t remember is that all great leaders first began as great followers.
What then is followership? If we say that followership is an art, then we acknowledge there must also be craft involved. But before craft comes core commitments. Those commitments include at least: 1) The commitment to love others, 2) the commitment to virtue, and 3) the commitment to action.
Commitment to love others
At the heart of the Christian life are several key loves. They include loving one’s neighbor and even loving one’s enemies. They also include loving our brothers and sisters in Christ, loving wisdom and truth, loving goodness and righteousness, and even loving the trials that God brings about to test our faith. Holding up and running through all these loves is the love of God (we might say this is both our love for God and God’s love for us). We declare our love for God by living out our love for our neighbor.
We know from Christ’s example that love is not primarily a feeling. Love includes directed action. It is behaving in certain ways, often in surprising ways. In fact, love in action may go against one’s initial feelings. In this sense we say that love is hard. Often we must love even though we chafe against the action. But love is not about seeking our own good, it is about the good of others, about their growth and their flourishing. To be a follower is to seek the good of others. Without love, this seeking becomes hollow and manipulative. But with love, this seeking can be transformative.
Commitment to virtue
Sometimes the call to virtue is like a voice crying in the wilderness, but to the Christian that call should be music to the ears. Much can be said about virtue, but for the sake of brevity consider this passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Phillipi:
[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Phillipians 4:8, NASB)
I cannot think of a more concise and precise description of the mind and heart of a believer. To dwell on these things is to foreground them in one’s life, to put them front and center, to love and to own them. Followership is based on these core virtues. The service of following must first and foremost have these virtues as spiritual beacons guiding one’s action.
Commitment to action
One cannot follow and sit still. Followership is not merely a desire for a leader to succeed. There is no need for either leaders or followers if there is nothing to do or no place to go. Great followers are key agents in any corporate accomplishment. Commitment to action is critical, but it must be subservient to both loving others and to virtue. There is no action for action’s sake in followership.
A few habits of followership
What do great followers do? The list can be seemingly infinite and, of course, the list will necessarily be context specific. Here are just a few things great followers will do:
- Support leadership publicly and privately.
- Disagree with leadership in private (only disagree with leadership in public when absolutely necessary).
- Support other followers.
- Confidently make decisions, but do not implement without leadership’s approval.
- Be ready for responsibility.
- Be honest. Do not hold back information.
- Know one’s business.
- Be both detail & big picture oriented.
- Anticipate questions.
- Know one’s weaknesses and strengths.
- Keep leadership informed of what’s going on.
- Take initiative and fix problems.
- Be a steward of one’s own area, but also of the company, organization, or group.
- Do not seek praise, but accept it when given appropriately.
- Say ‘thank you’ a lot.
- Praise others.
- Serve God and family above one’s job, and keep the right balance from a right perspective.
- Be willing to suffer for one’s right perspective.
- Study leadership (including one’s immediate leader).
- Begin at home: Children are to follow their parents, parents are to follow Christ.
Clearly followership is not about being a doormat for some self-serving leadership-craving egoist. Followership is deeply embedded in the created order, in the principles of Godly love, virtue, and right action. A wise follower is one who takes his humanity and individuality seriously, but also understands there are good and natural hierarchies in the world God has made.
Why teach followership? It is true that in the United States the credal virtue of individualism is often carried to the extreme, with an over-emphasis on personal independence and self-reliance. But we are individuals, and we must come to terms with God regardless of familial creeds or social pressures. And yet we do not live in isolation. God created us as corporate individuals. We are naturally social beings who live, learn, grow, and accomplish things together. Teaching followership is to teach proper responsibility within a “beholden framework” of relationships. Students should grow into adults who know when to serve, how to serve, and why to serve.
The history of Christianity is a history of leadership and followership. Families are built on leading and following. So is education. Teaching followership is not teaching how to get in line, or obeying merely for the sake of obedience. Teaching followership is the art of conveying proper respect for authority in light of higher truths, and with a view to the kingdom of God where every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is lord. We must teach followership as a required part of discipleship.
Finally, we teach followership so that students may be better prepared to be leaders when they are called. Good followers understand what it means to be a servant. Leaders who have first been followers are more likely to know the value of followership. They are more likely to be followed because they will exude the kind of maturity valued in good leaders. In short, followers make good leaders.
One of the most significant moments in U.S. history, and arguably the most important moment of this country’s founding, is the resignation of George Washington from his position over the Continental Army at the conclusion of the War of Independence. Here was a man who could have become king of this fledgling and chaotic country, who was the darling of the people, who was the hero of the nation, but instead he retired back to his farm. In Washington we have a marvelous example of a man who saw his primary duty as that of service to others in light of a higher calling. He was a true follower in the best sense. He was not a perfect man, but he operated first and foremost from principles, and he let those principles protect himself and others. We should teach followership not merely because the world needs more and better followers, and not merely because good followers help create good leaders, but because our very souls need to be taught to follow. Let us learn to follow so that when we hear the call of Truth we get in line. Let us teach our children to be discerning followers so that when they hear the call of Christ they know what to do.