About Me

How To Lead Like a Follower

Leadership can kill your spiritual life. Since becoming the senior staff person in an organization I’ve injected my reading and development with a tremendous dosage of leadership material.  I’ve been to conferences, read books, watched webinars and basically immersed my life in leadership. This has been both good and necessary. But there is a sense – as a Christian leader – that it’s all a bit too much.

Here’s what I mean.

Many of the teachers I’ve learned leadership from over the past two years are pastors themselves. Their books are about leadership; their blogs, their tweets, their conferences are all about leadership – which is both needed and good. I’m not throwing stones. But here comes the “but”….

What about “following?”

Being a Christian leader, particularly a Christian leader in the local church, my first call is NOT to lead. It is to follow.

Increasingly it is easy for observers to say that most church leaders see themselves primarily as CEO’s. There is a temptation, I think, to spend so much time thinking and developing our leadership that we neglect our “followship” (yes, I know that’s not a word). This, obviously, doesn’t have to be the case. And I assume that the good Christian women and men I mentioned above are great followers of God. Yet, still, I want to offer my friends a moment of pause to stave off the leadership idol that many fall prey to.

An over-focus on leadership will….

1. …crush your humility! If you’re a leader, you have one thing: Followers. This means there are people who will – whether rightly or wrongly – privilege what you think, say, and do. Done long enough, it’s nearly impossible to not believe that you know more and are better at things than they are. What’s worse is that they’ll let you. Giving push-back to your boss or leader is difficult, especially if your paycheck or “spiritual life” is involved. The antidote is not to believe your own hype.

2. …will make you think you’re supposed to produce something. Leaders love to produce and I’m a big believer in productivity, but that’s also why we need to remember that God is the one who produces. Turn to the Galatian’s “Fruit of the Spirit” for example. Our family once had an orange tree in our back yard. In the spring and summer we had oranges at every meal, but not in the winter. Why? There were no oranges in December. That doesn’t mean the tree isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing. The “fruit of the spirit” works the same way. The fruit is both inevitable (if you believe the Bible) and gradual (like all fruit). Too many times, leaders fear lack of movement and the stagnation of vision, but the wise Christian leader should know better. We should know that production cannot be manipulated or coerced….It’s not up to us anyway. Sometimes we need to let the ground rest and stop trying to “lead” everything.

3. …contribute to a cult of personality. This one is obvious. How many times have we seen a congregational leader fall and the next thing you know the congregation loses 75% of her members? Who were all these people following in the first place? Well, common sense would suggest they were following the congregational leader. This was the wrong leader to follow, but the preacher (or whoever) was too egotistical to ever tell them to trust more in God than the leader. In the absolute worse cases, these cults-of-personality create a Jim Jones or David Koresh cult. Your leadership could keep people from following Jesus. BEWARE.

I suppose I say all this as a check to myself and my fellow Christ-followers who are leaders in organizations. Perhaps the best thing we can do as leaders is not to lead, but to follow God and get out of the way of His Spirit.

What do you think? Have I missed the boat in terms of leadership? Too critical? What is the appropriate place for point-leadership and dedicated discipleship?

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  • Carol

    Good Morning Sean!! Hey, I really look forward to reading the Palmer Perspective. I didn’t receive it today in my e-mails but found it through Facebook. Was I supposed to get it? I don’t know but thought I would let you know anyway.


    • I didn’t get it in my e-mail either. It may be that this post is a re-post from an earlier post and didn’t send thinking it was a previous. Thanks for digging it up the site anyway. I appreciate your friendship and readership.

  • Trey

    I’ve seen this more than once working in a church. That’s not a character assassination or a cynic’s eye.

    The fact is, leadership requires someone to live on the edge of a knife, perfectly balanced. You must risk falling prey to all three of these in order to lead effectively.

  • Landrum

    Have you read Len Sweet’s I Am a Follower?

    • I haven’t and I really like sweet. Maybe you can help me out. I was thinking yesterday that I can’t think of one national event that helps pastors focus on spiritual formation in the same way we have leadership conferences. Do you know of any?

      • Eric Weiss

        Sounds like 7-14 days of prayer and semi-fasting at a semi-guided mixed labor & contemplative retreat sans cell phones and laptops might be the thing to do, rather than a “national event” likely to be of the same style as national “leadership conferences” with the same type of take-home solutions – books, tapes, videos, etc. – thereby reinforcing the very problem it’s supposed to address. Kind of a “detox.”

  • Piet

    I fully agree! In the 90’s HBR published an article about servant leaders in the corporate world and how successful they were. Perhaps it is because there are too many leaders that I feel like saying: congregations will have to be educated about this!

  • I once read this anecdote as part of an article: a girl who was desperate for acceptance to college wrote, I’m not a leader, but I think I’m a good follower. The response she got: Every year we get applications where 99% are leaders. We think this college is obliged to admit one follower. Congratulations on your acceptance.

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