Followership is Leadership

Friendly Reminder: A weekly reflection from the Quaker Leadership Center

Followership is Leadership

By Andy Stanton-Henry

Someone recently posed the question: “What biblical character do you identify with?” After giving a sarcastic answer – “satan” – I offered my actual answer – “Andrew.”

Why Andrew? Well, we share a name, for one. And I too seek to be a disciple of Jesus and his Way. But I’m also drawn to Andrew’s unique position in “the Twelve.” Sometimes, he seems to be a member of Jesus’ inner circle. But other times, we see that he didn’t quite make it into the “top three” group. This made him a kind of mediator and connector among the apostles.

Andrew is a bit of a paradox. He is both “inner circle” and “just one of the gang.” Additionally, he is both pioneering leader and faithful follower.

The first time we meet him in the gospels, he is a follower of John the Baptist (John 1). After encountering Christ, he becomes a follower of Jesus. The first one. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, he is known as Protokletos – “the First-Called.” He then tells his brother, Simon Peter, about Jesus, and Peter becomes the more prominent character from then on. The poor guy is repeatedly referred to as “Simon Peter’s brother” in the gospels.

I get it. As a kid, I was referred to as “Luke’s brother” – living in the shadow of my talented and popular elder bro. But I also identify with Andrew in my leadership aspirations. I want to lead and have had many leadership roles, but I’m not one who seeks the spotlight or needs to be the center of attention. I’m not begging to walk on water or arguing passionately with my teacher, like Peter. I’m okay with being a “second chair” leader.

Maybe it’s my bias, but I think Andrew is an underrated apostle. We need more Andrews – people who are connectors, servant-leaders, and authentic evangelists. People who act with quiet courage and are willing to work behind the scenes.

As it turns out, there’s a lot more talk in the leadership world about “Andrews” these days. Folks are realizing that all the talk about leadership has only gotten us so far. We also need to talk about followership.

Understand, at the Quaker LEADERSHIP Center, we are all about supporting and nurturing leaders. I think Quakers need to talk more, not less, about leadership. But inside that conversation, we need to recognize the importance of followership.

Being a follower gets bad press sometimes. We don’t want to be one of those “sheeple.” So, why is followership important?

None of us functions as “leader” or “follower” in every situation. We have different roles and relationships that require different modes of being and complicate those distinctions.

Good leaders are good followers first. To use gospels language, we are disciples before we are apostles. We are players before we are coaches. We are students before we are teachers. It’s not just about doing our time or proving ourselves, it’s about developing wisdom, shaping character, and knowing empathically, in our bodies, the experience of various stages in leading and following.

Healthy leaders are willing to follow their followers. There are times for assertive, directive leadership. Leaders should beware of having a “failure of nerve,” as Edwin Freidman warned. But healthy leaders are secure enough to listen, adapt, embrace outside ideas, and stand corrected.

Lasting leadership requires faithful followers. If you think you’re leading, but you look back and no one is behind you, you’re just going for a walk. There’s a reciprocal relationship between leaders and followers; it’s only in that special synergy that anything meaningful gets done. It’s only in that partnership that anything lasts. Any innovation requires “early adopters” and an “early majority” in order to be successful. New movements stand or fall on the presence of a “first follower” who validates the venture or the message.

Originality is overrated. I’m very pro-creativity and innovation. But sometimes we try too hard to be original. Sometimes, there are already great projects and organizations doing work we care about, and there’s nothing wrong with joining them instead of starting something new. Chances are, they are desperate for positive, proactive followers.

Followership keep us grounded and growing. “Iron sharpens iron,” the book of Proverbs notes. Even contentious relationships in community can make us better by shaping our craft and character. One of my spiritual heroes is Thomas Merton. By nature an independent thinker and free spirit, he joined a monastic order and had to submit to an abbot. They were constantly butting heads but many agree that the cycle of combat and reconciliation shaped them both in important ways. It may have also harnessed Merton’s restlessness to keep him grounded and sustained his writing ministry.

In the end, followership is a type of leadership. Followers, especially the early joiners or adopters, are leaders for those who come after them. Furthermore, followers have more influence than we typically assume. They have the power to call forth the full potential of the leader. And they have the power to hold them accountable or redirect them in ways competing leaders or bystanders simply do not.

It takes as much courage to be a follower as it does to be a leader. Andrews are just as courageous as Peters, though they express it in different ways and in different tones. We need both.

In his “courageous follower” model, author Ira Challef names five dimensions of courage required of healthy followers:

1. The courage to support the leader.

2. The courage to assume responsibility for common purpose.

3. The courage to constructively challenge the leader.

4. The courage to participate in necessary transformation.

5. The courage to take an ethical stand to prevent abuse.

What about you?

How are you a leader or follower in different situations?

What leaders do you follow? How do they need your support?

How can we nurture courageous followership in our meetings, churches, and organizations?

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