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Follow First, Lead Later

The sense in the sequence

Follow First, Lead Later

Even among Christians, leadership has a greater allure than followership. Books on leadership abound. Today it is popular to regard even every school child as a leader. But this begs the question: if everyone is a leader, will there be any followers?

Dr Lee Soo Ann, former professor and dean of the Faculty of Business Administration, a Presbyterian elder and former chair of “Impact Magazine”, made some forthright remarks for a rather mild-mannered man, when he wrote:

“Everyone wants to be a leader. Nobody wants to be led. What is needed is a book on how to be led well! We tend to be led wrongly, and we end up being leaders wrongly. Each one of us is a leader in one or two areas, but a led person in many others. In order to be a leader, one needs to know how to be led first ... The very abundance of books on leadership is symptomatic of the malaise of a lack of self-worth, where one is measured by how much one owns, how active one is, to which group one belongs. Too great a consciousness of oneself being a leader signals a problem.”

Possibly in fast-paced Singapore, where everyone expects to be fast-tracked into leadership and success, people are “parachuted” into positions that they have not been adequately prepared for. Thirty or more years ago, people understood the meaning of TIG = Time in Grade, the need to stay in a job or grade for sufficient time to fully grasp its demands and nuances. Today, anyone still holding the same job for more than three years is regarded with disdain.

One clever trick is to dispense titles freely. So there are CEOs with less than five on staff and Senior Pastors with less than 100 members. It may be argued that they still need to perform similar functions, albeit on a very much smaller scale. Elsewhere, they are called sergeants and not Brigadier Generals. But wisdom is justified of all her children (Luke 7:35). 

The term “followership” is so unfamiliar that many dictionaries have yet to include it. What do we mean by followership?

A good place to begin is with the people who are renowned for their ability to carry out orders – the United States Marine Corps: “A follower is one in service of another, one that follows the opinion or teachings of another; or one that imitates another.” 

Clearly, a follower has no agenda of his own, except to make someone else’s desire his priority. Christians mouth it when they sing the line “I live for You alone”. Imagine the household where the servant says, “My only happiness is to make you happy”.

Followers aren’t mere sheep. Nor just biding their time. They are taking down notes and building authentic resumes.

One of the most outstanding examples is the biblical Joseph. He has often been caricatured as a “dreamer” but the records show more than that. At 17 he was tending the flocks with his brothers (Gen 27:2). He knew right from wrong and reported the misbehaviour of his half-brothers to his father. Once when his father Jacob wanted to send him to Shechem to see if all was well with his brothers, his reply was “At your service” (Berkeley version). And when he couldn’t find them at Shechem, he diligently pursued them all the way to Dothan – where the unfortunate betrayal awaited.

Sold into slavery, Joseph served Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, so well that the latter “committed everything to Joseph’s care; he did not bother about anything; he simply ate his meals.” Such followership is hard to come by. It was Joseph’s integrity that landed him in jail – since he would not give in to the seductive advances of Potiphar’s wife. And true to form, even in prison, he demonstrated his sterling qualities. Soon the prison warden made him an unpaid Chief Operating Officer and “… entrusted to Joseph all the convicts in the prison, holding him responsible for all that was going on. The warden did not check on anything under Joseph’s management.” (Gen 39:22, 23). The irony, I’m sure, was not lost on Joseph: he was completely free to do what he wanted, in the confines of the prison!

Joseph was only 30 when he started in Pharaoh’s service (Gen 41:46). He was given an all-encompassing mandate by Pharaoh: “Since God has taught you all this, there is none as discerning and wise as you are; you shall be in charge of my palace, and as you give orders so my people shall conduct themselves. Only in matters of the throne will I be your superior.”

What an enviable chap he was – always being given blank cheques like that. Why did it happen? He proved he was an outstanding follower, who learnt and understood what the operating dynamics were and led from a position of strength and experience (knowing both sides of the coin, so to speak). Proof of followership assures outstanding leadership. Recall the biblical principle, “faithful over little, faithful over much”.

Well, if you’re leading and nobody’s following, you’re just out for a walk. The quotation sounds laughable on paper, but a looming disaster in real life.

Dr Andrew Goh is the editor of Impact magazine.

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