By: Kevin Lowry
Leadership. We hear the word everywhere these days. It seems like every time we turn around, another seminar, book or webcast is promising to help us become better leaders. Leadership development opportunities abound, and for good reason. By learning the principles and examples of great leaders, we internalize important virtues and increase our positive influence on others. Leadership is important. In fact, the leadership of Pope John Paul II is one of the reasons I became Catholic. I have studied the topic for years, even to the point where my MBA program concentration was “Applied Leadership” (whatever that means). I’m not sure that study actually made me a better leader, but it did help me to appreciate the value of good leadership in our lives and admire those who seem born to lead. So imagine my surprise when my dad sent me a reflection he recently wrote on followership.
With a diverse background as missionary, entrepreneur, academic–and Presbyterian minister converted to the Catholic faith–Dad has long been in leadership roles. Why focus on followership? We have all seen countless examples, thankfully, of great leadership – the ultimate model being that of Jesus himself. His leadership focused on the service of others, hence the birth of “servant leadership.” It’s an approach that focuses leadership efforts on facilitating the success of the followers, for mutual benefit. And yet, when we talk about developing leadership skills, we are often focused on becoming better leaders ourselves. The danger inherent in this approach is that, unlike Jesus, we have a proclivity to selfishness. All too often, we see examples of people striving to become better leaders only to use their leadership positions as means to advance their own careers or agendas. This misses the entire point (and opportunity) of good leadership. So what about followership?
Followership is intrinsically other-centered, as is true leadership. To excel in followership, our task is to facilitate the success of the leader, to the mutual benefit of both leader and followers. Note that both leadership and followership, properly understood, are aimed at helping people to be “good and faithful servants.” So how does this work in practical terms? Here are a couple examples from a context most of us can relate to: the workplace. I have a friend who is a successful attorney. Jim respects his boss’s authority, works like crazy to make her successful, trusts her implicitly, and speaks positively about her even when she’s not around. He uses his gifts to help her succeed, and this is frequently reciprocated.
Another friend, Diane, demonstrates followership in a different context. She works in a nonprofit advocacy group that takes public positions on issues pertinent to its constituents. Diane instinctively defers to her boss even when they hold divergent perspectives. With tact and affirmation, she has learned to ask questions to draw out her boss’s thinking, often resulting in better solutions. Their skill sets are complementary, so, through Diane’s followership, she makes her boss more effective. Why is good followership not practiced widely, and even used as a pejorative? Perhaps it’s our cultural tendency toward narcissism – many of us want to be leaders in all our relationships. When we’re not the leader, we’re quick to pass judgment, often imputing selfishness to their motives. If only we were leading, things would be better!
Yet, in life, we play both roles. Being a good leader is important, but so is being a good follower. The difference is that, while we’re trained extensively on leadership, we don’t pay nearly as much attention to followership – even though we tend to play the role of follower more frequently. All of this may sound like so much navel-gazing, but ideas really matter in our daily lives. We all know the price we pay for poor or misguided leadership. The last century was rife with high-profile examples – Hitler, Stalin and Mao, for starters. Unfortunately, there are also countless examples of bad leadership on a small scale. These negatively affect our governments, organizations and families. Think about the impact corrupt bureaucrats, dishonest executives and neglectful fathers often have on people over whom they have some measure of power.
It’s just as easy to come up with examples of parallel consequences, both large and small, for failures of followership. Consider just one. As we all know, the devil is a master strategist. Over the past few hundred years, his “divide and conquer” approach to Christianity has visibly reduced the influence of the Church around the world. Jesus desired unity for his bride the Church and, through our sinfulness, we have let him down. So here’s a question: what if Martin Luther (whose writings led to the Reformation) had embraced the notion of authentic followership? What if he had reacted differently to the very real abuses going on in the Church at the time (that , striving to preserve the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ and trusting our Lord to bring about good from the situation? Might we have avoided the pain and division of the reformation and its aftershocks, and at the same time effected real and needed change within the Church?
The foundation of good followership is trust – not in our imperfect leaders, but in Jesus himself. “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). So go ahead and attend that leadership seminar. Read the book. Take in the webinar. Just don’t forget that we also need to work on becoming better followers. When our boss (or our bishop) succeeds, we do too.