I was challenged by a recent series of articles and blogs on the tiredness of leadership conversations at the expense of the importance of followership conversations. The repeated point was that we don’t need another “Five Marks of Effective Leaders” talk or blog as much as we need the more overlooked “Five Marks of Effective Followers.”
Because effective followers are everything.
While I believe in the importance of leadership, followership is grossly overlooked, if not looked down upon. We’ve made the term derogatory, and elevated the ideal of leadership as the pinnacle of success.
Who wants to say, “My great gift is following?” It’s as if you’re saying, “My great gift is to serve someone with a gift.”
This mindset ignores three very important truths:
First, that no one can be an effective leader until they first learn how to follow. Leadership is truly subordinate to following. So instead of saying, “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” perhaps the deeper truth is, “Everything rises and falls on followership.” A 1988 Harvard Business Review article defined a good follower as “being committed to a purpose, principle or person outside themselves” and being “courageous, honest and credible.” Sounds an awful lot like what we hope for in a leader. So unless we first learn to follow, we can never learn to lead.
Second, the heart of the Christ life is not leading – it’s following. The clarion call of Jesus to all who would listen was, “Follow me!” So only those who excel in following are truly excelling in the Christ life. If to live is Christ and to die is gain, then to live is to follow far more than it is to lead.
Finally, Jesus also made it clear that the greatest among us are those who serve others (Mt. 28:11). Repeat: greatest. We have such a short-sighted view of things in this world even within the Christian community. We highlight the speakers and authors, megachurch pastors and television evangelists.
In truth, those among these ranks will rank very little in eternity.
Who will be celebrated in heaven? Who will be so close to the throne that the likes of someone like me will barely catch a glimpse of them because they will be so near the throne I will barely be able to cast my eyes toward their splendor?
The ones marked by humility.
The ones who have a towel draped over their arm and a water basin by their side, ready to wash whatever feet need washing. And more than likely in a room where no one sees and no one will ever know.
Yet they keep washing.
My name is often solely associated with Mecklenburg Community Church. It’s absurd. In heaven, I will be the least associated with it. The ones who will be honored for the lives it has changed, the marriages it has restored, the families it has strengthened, the poor and hungry and homeless and widowed and orphaned it has served…
… will not be the leaders.
It will be the followers.
So, as Susan Cain titled her piece in the New York Times, “Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers.”
Yes, it does.
But in truth, the church has a better nomenclature to offer than “leaders” or “followers.”
It’s “ministers.” And every Christian is one. Some might have the ministry of leadership but that is far from the only ministry, much less most important.
Every member of a church is a minister.
The role of a pastor/leader? To serve the ministry of the members. To unleash the ministry of the members. To equip the ministry of the members.
So here’s a paradigm shift:
Followers are so important that the role of the leader is to…
… serve them.
James Emery White
Agnes Howard, “Leadership Is Bunk,” Patheos, March 27, 2017, read online.
Susan Cain, “Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers.”, The New York Times, March 24, 2017, read online.
Robert Kelley, “In Praise of Followers,” Harvard Business Review, November 1988 Issue, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.