Leaders and Followers

Posted on April 15, 2018


I first remember hearing about leaders and leadership in general while in NROTC in college many years ago. I had never thought much about it, but our naval officer profs zeroed in on the subject and told us this is what we were being trained to do: be leaders.

Recently, in the church I attend we were encouraged to take up our leadership skills and volunteer to lead something in the church. In this instance I think we were being exhorted to lead a “small” group, which is the modern label for what you old timers (I count myself in this category) used to call “Sunday” school.

As I thought about leadership, it occurred to me that there is much to be said about it. To be a good leader, for example, you must learn to be a good follower. That, of course, is conventional wisdom.

And, how about: are there “born” leaders and born followers? Aristotle, the fountainhead of classical wisdom and still quoted today, thought so.

Leaving the classical Greek sources of political theory aside for the moment, I turned to Scripture, the other great source of wisdom, before the Internet of course.

Here, for example, are two hits that popped up when I typed in “leaders and followers in the Bible”: “21 Verses About Being a Leader,” and “53 verses about Follower” in the http://www.OpenBible.info.

Another web site, Fast Company, offers “Five Ways Being a Good Follower Makes You a Better Leader,” invoking both conventional wisdom and new insights driven by new technologies.

“Barbara Kellerman, a leadership lecturer at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government [and] author of Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, says that significant shifts in technology and culture have changed that dynamic, giving followers more power. And there’s a lot you can learn about being a good leader by learning to be a good follower.”

A friend, a retired Dean of the School of Commerce and Business Administration, is now doing a study of Nehemiah for his Sunday School class, bringing to bear a lot of his own experiences in leadership, with a plethora of studies of leadership in Nehemiah. Much on Nehemiah and leadership is contained in books, but, of course, for us moderns, is instantly accessible on the Internet.
But, as I’ve slowly learned over the years, to really get versed in some classic or religious piece of writing, read the book yourself. Pick up Nehemiah and start reading.

This is simply a basic principle in my profession of history: go to the original sources to begin with. If you are curious as to what Aristotle or Plato thought of leaders, go read the old Greeks. Even better, if you don’t read Greek or haven’t got a couple of months, or years, to spare reading their stuff which is long and can be dense, find an introduction to their writings since they both left an immense corpus of their thought. If you want to know what Jesus taught on something like leadership, start with the Bible. Go to Matthew 5-7 for starters.

What you will learn quickly is that what Jesus taught, for example, is about being a good follower, almost a contradiction of what a good leader is supposed to be. Being a follower in these teachings is not being a passive recipient of wisdom; it is practicing it. The apostle James addressed the issue straight on in James 1:22. Jesus was both a good follower of his Father’s teachings, but also a good leader.

But, you may say, well that’s ok for Jesus. He was after all the son of God and God himself. What about me?

Like Aristotle, who never knew Jesus since he lived 300 years earlier, I think there are natural leaders, and natural followers. The problem with being a natural leader is that it can be an easy path to corruption and tyranny. You become, to invoke an adage, too big for your britches, which means you are conceited and have an exaggerated sense of your own importance.

I think leadership skills can be taught, even by those reluctant to take up a leadership role. And we can all benefit from being good followers, especially of Jesus who set the model of obedience.

The trick of course is to be both a good leader and a good follower, often at the same time. I probably need to go back and reread the book of Nehemiah.

Published as “Following is a part of leadership” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, March 11, 2018

Posted in: Leadership