"Leadership is really a particular form of followership."
Biblical leadership starts with being a good follower. James Galvin, author of I’ve Got Your Back: Biblical Principles for Leading and Following Well, does a really interesting job of showing the truly essential interdependency of following and leading.
He says we’ve too often met leaders who demean, defraud and disappoint us as followers — he calls this follower abuse. We’re just looking for a leader we can trust! Because of follower abuse, our best young leaders are discouraged from stepping into leader roles. So he wrote the book to attract the next generation of leaders to leadership. Originally written in textbook style, the young leaders he had review it gave it a big yawn. What to do to make it easy for them to want to learn from it? The final book became a leadership parable — through story we learn Biblical principles for leading and following well. Then, in the last chapter, Galvin pulls the how-to’s from the parable to help us develop our leadership methodology. Brilliant!
The Big Idea
Leadership is God’s Idea
"If leadership is God’s idea, why doesn’t it work better in daily life?"
God could have made human leadership to function the way ants and bees do it — where everyone coordinates their own efforts with others for the mutual benefit of the group or to have only one leader. Instead He chose to have people lead each other in various ways and in various circumstances. This method worked perfectly in the Garden Eden. But then it was spoiled by sin. The Garden leadership before sin functioned so smoothly it was difficult to tell who was leading and who was following (like when you see two exceptional dancers dancing together). Here was the first ever leadership failure — Adam was right there with Eve and did nothing to stop her (Genesis 3:6). And the second leadership failure — Eve led the way by first biting the fruit. Then Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent and forever after people were mistrustful of each other (you will desire to control your husband but he will rule over you — Genesis 3:16).
Even if you aren’t a Bible student, you know this story. Understanding that we as humans are destined to struggle to be effective leaders helps put the daily push and pull into perspective. So the short answer is that sin ruined God’s perfect leadership method. The long answer is that if it hadn’t happened in the Garden of Eden it would have happened eventually because humans lose their heads when it comes to power — we either want it or we shirk it and neither is good for effective leadership.
I am currently in a “shirking it” part of my life but that’s after 50 plus years of wanting it, working to be effective at it, being summoned by others to do it. I’m tired of the work it takes to be an effective leader but realized while writing this summary that I must not shirk it. At the very least, when I have experience in an area that others don’t I need to step forward and put the work in that it takes to do the perfect dance for the good of the whole. My ultimate leader, God, has called me to lead in some situations. Therefore I must obey.
Creating a successful leadership model
"Why do we put up with it…as if what they are doing is acceptable?"
As followers our model of followership is as messed up as our model of leadership. We have to, as good followers, speak up about poor leadership in a constructive way. Any leader who isn’t a sociopath (The Sociopath Next Door) would be mortified if they learned later that they were leading in a way that made you not want to follow. We have a responsibility to tell them, a responsibility to help them become a successful leader.
As we help leaders be successful through constructive feedback, we learn how to be better leaders ourselves. Ok, you have the skills to tell the leader what he/she is doing that doesn’t make you want to follow but where do you get the specific actions to tell them to do instead? I’m a behavioral psychologist so I learn best by seeing successful behaviors and replicating them. God created perfect leadership before sin and the only person not ruined by sin was Jesus. Jesus is a great example but He led so effortlessly that we have trouble seeing it and therefore learning how to lead from it.
The easiest to replicate list of great leadership behaviors I ever saw compiled was in a session 12 years ago titled, “Inspiring Like Jesus”. In groups on flip charts we listed behavior after behavior along with a specific example of each of Jesus inspiring people. Then we posted all the groups’ lists on a website so each group (and people who hadn’t been at the session) could add more inspirational behaviors to their leadership list. I still hear from people who are successfully applying these behaviors!
Why care about being a good follower?
"One cannot become a good leader without first becoming a good follower."
How well we follow gives people insight into our character. Galvin says that the best leaders are good followers and vice versa. In the book he uses the acronym REAL to group a long list of successful follower actions that sure look like the character behaviors I want associated with my name. A few examples:
Responsible — Helps leader lead well, gives feedback to leader and others, does more than asked, takes initiative.
Ethical — Free to follow well and free to leave if can’t follow this leader well – but not free to follow poorly.
Authentic — Genuine, humble, views others as human beings bearing the image of God.
Loving — Establishes relationship with leader and others, kind, forgiving, grace-giving.
For every verse in the Bible about leadership there are 10 about followership. It’s a wonderful resource for examples of how to be a good follower. Much like customer service — it’s easier to serve customers if you’ve been one. You know what you need and find valuable as a customer. Same with followers — we know what we need from a leader and what behaviors we value and find valuable in being led.
Galvin makes a convincing case that the essence of leadership is helping people follow. The book ends with lots and lots of ideas on how to spot good follower actions and what to do and how to help those who aren’t exhibiting them. And we might as well learn to follow well ourselves because in addition to it making us be a better leader, we will be in a follower role everyday in some part of our lives for the rest of our lives.