“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” —I Corinthians 11:1
The leader-follower relationship is one of the most important relationships in an organization (Bennis & Biederman, 2009; Burns, 1978; Uhl-Bien, Riggio, Lowe, & Carsten, 2014). Yet we appear consumed with only the leadership side of that equation. Walk into most any bookstore and you will see entire sections dedicated to “how to be a better leader“?
Where are the books on “how to be a better follower?”
The hard truth is, leading cannot exist without following. Followers legitimize leaders (Uhl-Bien et al., 2014). In order to have a healthy organization, we need healthy leader-follower relationships. Because as it turns out, followership “is considered one of the least well-understood roles in organizations” (Uhl-Bien et al., 2014 ).
To grow as leaders, it’s important to understand this balanced relationship between leader and follower.
Why the Dis?
One reason we emphasize leadership over followership is our over-inflated view of our leaders. The “triumphant individual” is ingrained in the American psyche as “we are a nation enamored of heroes” (Bennis, 2000, p. 72).
The role of hero, leader and celebrity often become blurred. No one wants to be the sidekick. Leonard Bernstein wrote, “The hardest instrument to play in a symphony orchestra is second fiddle” (as cited by Bennis, 2000, p. 73). We have a desire to be first.
Another reason we minimize followership may have to do with the erroneous perception that followers are less. Followers have been viewed historically as those who simply cannot lead (Carsten & Lapierre, 2014). Consequently, we think of followers as passive and deferent; lacking power, status and authority. This view strains follower dignity and well-being.
We Need a New Mindset
With today’s fast-paced and increasingly competitive environment, the follower role is becoming more important. Leaders are rarely the best or brightest person in the room and need to rely on followers to lead, with new ideas, strategies and to challenge the status quo (Bennis, 2000).
A study by Gallup of 2 million employees in more than 300,000 businesses showed that a company’s productivity depended most on its managers, not senior leadership (Walker, 2019). Middle managers, those individuals who are often identified as both leader and follower, had more to do with team effectiveness than all other organizational influences.
This balance between leader and follower is highlighted in the transcendent leadership viewpoint. But if this balance is so important, what exactly is a transcendent leader?
The Transcendent Leader
The transcendent leader understands that, “without each other the leader and the led are culturally impoverished” (Bennis, 2000, p. 79). According to Bennis (2000), the follower-focused mindset:
- Practices the power of appreciation.
- Keeps reminding people of what’s important.
- Generates and sustains trust.
- Understands that the leader and the led are intimate allies.
The transcendent leader approach recognizes that we need a new kind of leader that is committed to not having the loudest voice but the most attentive ear (Bennis, 2000).
Jesus, the most transcendent person in history, came not as a triumphant hero but as a servant. John 12:26 says, “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.”
Transcendent leadership incorporates the attitude of a servant and follower. When we choose to serve and adopt a Followership mindset we:
- Elevate people and relationships.
- Build community by promoting values that transcend self-interest.
- Honor God by stewarding the gifts He entrusted to us.
- Engender trust.
- Create capacity for good.
- Inspire and empower others to persevere.
- Share the same mindset as Jesus (Phil. 2:5-8).
When we serve, we transcend self-interest and show an intrinsic drive to serve a calling larger than ourselves. We develop followers to become healthier, wiser, more autonomous and more likely themselves to have a followership mindset (Greenleaf, 1991).
Find Your Flock
To be a transcendent leader, first, find your flock. A flock is the group around you that you can influence. Everyone has someone with which they can practice followership. Your flock may be your classmates or your workmates. Proverbs 27 provides the metaphor of a flock to a caretaker, emphasizing the need to serve and protect those in your care so that all can flourish.
Who has God put in your life recently and is prodding you to serve?
Start your lead-follower journey by practicing on them. No one is an expert on the first try. Practice followership by practicing empathy, considering their interests, finding out their aspirations and endeavoring for their success. As a result, everyone benefits. And as noted in 1 Peter 4:10, when we use our God-given gifts to in the service of others we are stewards of God’s grace.
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Bennis, W. G. (2000). The end of leadership: exemplary leadership is impossible without full inclusion, initiatives, and cooperation of followers. IEEE Engineering Management Review, 28(3), 36-42.
Bennis, W. G., & Biederman, P. W. (2009). The essential bennis (1st ed. ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper & Row.
Carsten, M. K., & Lapierre, L. (2014). Followership: What Is It and Why Do People Follow? (Vol. First edition). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Greenleaf, R. K. (1991). The servant as leader. Indianapolis, IN: The Robert K.Greenleaf Center.
Uhl-Bien, M., Riggio, R. E., Lowe, K. B., & Carsten, M. K. (2014). Followership theory: A review and research agenda. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 83-104. Retrieved from http://0-search.ebscohost.com.oak.indwes.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2013-41866-001&site=ehost-live. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2013.11.007
Walker, S. (2019). The Economy’s Last Best Hope: Superstar Middle Managers. Wall Street Journal – Online Edition, 1. Retrieved from http://0-search.ebscohost.com.oak.indwes.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=crh&AN=135528966&site=ehost-live.