Perspectives on Raising Servants (part 2): The Art of Followership

[This essay was first published on the Classical Conversations blog.]

Are you a good follower? Are you teaching your children and students to be good followers? I can’t say I’m a success at either, but I want to be.

We know George Washington famously crossed the Delaware, but wasn’t it Washington and his army that crossed? Wasn’t Washington’s victory at Trenton due to his army defeating the Hessians? Or consider Steve Jobs. He received much praise for Apple’s success, but the work was largely done by others. Or consider a great teacher. Does not that greatness require great students as well? You see, there is a connection between great leaders and great followers. Look at the history of Christianity. Christ is our Lord and leader, and we are called to be followers. The apostles were great followers from Pentecost onwards, and we are the inheritors of their choices and actions. The world needs great followers.

If we call the art of being a leader, leadership, then we should call the art of being a follower, followership. What a strange word, follwership. Much focus has been heaped on leadership, so much so that we are likely to forget about the importance of following. Peruse any bookstore and one is likely to find a plethora of books on leadership and none on followership. Our society denigrates the idea of being a “mere” follower, but it shouldn’t. In fact, as educators we should make it our goal to create great followers.

Throughout our lives we will have many more opportunities to follow than to lead, and we will all be followers most of the time. If this is true, then shouldn’t we seek to be the best and most virtuous followers we can be? What we often don’t remember is that all great leaders first began as great followers.

What then is followership? If we say that followership is an art, then we acknowledge there must also be craft involved. But before craft comes core commitments. Those commitments include at least: 1) The commitment to love others, 2) the commitment to virtue, and 3) the commitment to action.

Commitment to love others

At the heart of the Christian life are several key loves. They include loving one’s neighbor and even loving one’s enemies. They also include loving our brothers and sisters in Christ, loving wisdom and truth, loving goodness and righteousness, and even loving the trials that God brings about to test our faith. Holding up and running through all these loves is the love of God (we might say this is both our love for God and God’s love for us). We declare our love for God by living out our love for our neighbor.

We know from Christ’s example that love is not primarily a feeling. Love includes directed action. It is behaving in certain ways, often in surprising ways. In fact, love in action may go against one’s initial feelings. In this sense we say that love is hard. Often we must love even though we chafe against the action. But love is not about seeking our own good, it is about the good of others, about their growth and their flourishing. To be a follower is to seek the good of others. Without love, this seeking becomes hollow and manipulative. But with love, this seeking can be transformative.

Commitment to virtue

Sometimes the call to virtue is like a voice crying in the wilderness, but to the Christian that call should be music to the ears. Much can be said about virtue, but for the sake of brevity consider this passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Phillipi:

[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Phillipians 4:8, NASB)

I cannot think of a more concise and precise description of the mind and heart of a believer. To dwell on these things is to foreground them in one’s life, to put them front and center, to love and to own them. Followership is based on these core virtues. The service of following must first and foremost have these virtues as spiritual beacons guiding one’s action.

Commitment to action

One cannot follow and sit still. Followership is not merely a desire for a leader to succeed. There is no need for either leaders or followers if there is nothing to do or no place to go. Great followers are key agents in any corporate accomplishment. Commitment to action is critical, but it must be subservient to both loving others and to virtue. There is no action for action’s sake in followership.

A few habits of followership

What do great followers do? The list can be seemingly infinite and, of course, the list will necessarily be context specific. Here are just a few things great followers will do:

  1. Support leadership publicly and privately.
  2. Disagree with leadership in private (only disagree with leadership in public when absolutely necessary).
  3. Support other followers.
  4. Confidently make decisions, but do not implement without leadership’s approval.
  5. Be ready for responsibility.
  6. Be honest. Do not hold back information.
  7. Know one’s business.
  8. Be both detail & big picture oriented.
  9. Anticipate questions.
  10. Know one’s weaknesses and strengths.
  11. Keep leadership informed of what’s going on.
  12. Take initiative and fix problems.
  13. Be a steward of one’s own area, but also of the company, organization, or group.
  14. Do not seek praise, but accept it when given appropriately.
  15. Say ‘thank you’ a lot.
  16. Praise others.
  17. Serve God and family above one’s job, and keep the right balance from a right perspective.
  18. Be willing to suffer for one’s right perspective.
  19. Study leadership (including one’s immediate leader).
  20. Begin at home: Children are to follow their parents, parents are to follow Christ.

Clearly followership is not about being a doormat for some self-serving leadership-craving egoist. Followership is deeply embedded in the created order, in the principles of Godly love, virtue, and right action. A wise follower is one who takes his humanity and individuality seriously, but also understands there are good and natural hierarchies in the world God has made.

Teaching followership

Why teach followership? It is true that in the United States the credal virtue of individualism is often carried to the extreme, with an over-emphasis on personal independence and self-reliance. But we are individuals, and we must come to terms with God regardless of familial creeds or social pressures. And yet we do not live in isolation. God created us as corporate individuals. We are naturally social beings who live, learn, grow, and accomplish things together. Teaching followership is to teach proper responsibility within a “beholden framework” of relationships. Students should grow into adults who know when to serve, how to serve, and why to serve.

The history of Christianity is a history of leadership and followership. Families are built on leading and following. So is education. Teaching followership is not teaching how to get in line, or obeying merely for the sake of obedience. Teaching followership is the art of conveying proper respect for authority in light of higher truths, and with a view to the kingdom of God where every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is lord. We must teach followership as a required part of discipleship.

Finally, we teach followership so that students may be better prepared to be leaders when they are called. Good followers understand what it means to be a servant. Leaders who have first been followers are more likely to know the value of followership. They are more likely to be followed because they will exude the kind of maturity valued in good leaders. In short, followers make good leaders.


One of the most significant moments in U.S. history, and arguably the most important moment of this country’s founding, is the resignation of George Washington from his position over the Continental Army at the conclusion of the War of Independence. Here was a man who could have become king of this fledgling and chaotic country, who was the darling of the people, who was the hero of the nation, but instead he retired back to his farm. In Washington we have a marvelous example of a man who saw his primary duty as that of service to others in light of a higher calling. He was a true follower in the best sense. He was not a perfect man, but he operated first and foremost from principles, and he let those principles protect himself and others. We should teach followership not merely because the world needs more and better followers, and not merely because good followers help create good leaders, but because our very souls need to be taught to follow. Let us learn to follow so that when we hear the call of Truth we get in line. Let us teach our children to be discerning followers so that when they hear the call of Christ they know what to do.

Perspectives on Raising Servants (part 1): The Service of Leadership

[This essay was first published on the Classical Conversations blog.]

For me, to write about leadership is a bit like the sportswriter who never plays sports, or the art critic who never makes art. It is all too easy to pontificate on something I know mostly by observation rather than experience. I confess, I write this so that I might be a better leader.

Bearing the Cross

The first rule of leadership is to bear one’s cross, and that cross has a great deal to do with loving one’s neighbor, for there is no true leadership without love and sacrifice. This is what we must teach.

What image do you have when you think about leadership? Maybe in your mind’s eye you see George Washington risking crossing the icy Delaware in the cold of winter, or it might be Shakespeare’s King Henry V leading his men “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…,” or maybe you see Mahatma Gandhi’s civilly disobedient march to the sea to gather salt. Closer to home you might imagine a business leader or statesman or pastor. Or perhaps you see a darker side of leadership, the grasping for power, the abuse of position. Regardless, leadership seems to be an important element in the story God is writing, and in the nature of human existence, including the establishment of societies, the morality of decision making, and even the teaching of children.

Many schools claim to train up leaders. Many commencement addresses beseech the graduates to be leaders (often, and erroneously, assuming that diplomas naturally lead to leadership). Many of our popular stories are of individuals faced with the call to leadership and their struggle to take up that responsibility. It is our nature to seek and need leaders. What we often fail to see is that true leadership is fundamentally about service and sacrifice, and not about position, power, or even education. In other words, true leaders are something other than mere figureheads or even those giving commands. One does not need to command armies to be a leader. But one cannot be a leader without first being a servant.

As Christians we follow Christ, for He is our leader, and we seek to imitate Him. As Christians we are to train up our children in the way of Christ. Thus, we must not wish that our children become leaders unless we first wish them to be like Christ. This is an important truth. True leadership is both a difficult burden and a touchstone of one’s character. Our society typically thinks of leadership as an exciting vanguard or the visible epitome of charisma rather than humble service. But great leaders are servants first and always.

Perhaps one might say leadership is morally neutral━there can be good leaders and bad leaders. In this sense leadership itself is seen as merely functional, and it’s what one does with leadership that counts. However, this is a false view of leadership. True leadership is decidedly moral. It is about the pursuit of virtue, the love of others, about seeking excellence, and it is teleological━for it seeks to help others grow and develop as they should. Thus, at its core, leadership is deeply normative.

The Characteristics of Leadership

What, then, are the basic characteristics of leadership? Consider this statement by Max DePree from his book Leadership is an Art:

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. (p. 11)

Let’s take up DePree’s four responsibilities of leadership.

Define reality

Consider the mob out of control or the group unconcerned of impending doom or the family coming apart. How important is truth in those situations? Reality is what it is, but we often have skewed understandings of reality. We bring ourselves, including our fears, worldviews, false hopes, and dreams to every situation. A leader must orient others to the truth of reality. In other words, leaders are called to provide clarity and understanding. Quickly one sees how this can be abused. Unscrupulous leaders can manipulate others for nefarious ends by championing false realities. Good leaders, however, are committed to the idea that truth and love are beholden to each other. Defining reality is a powerful and deeply moral characteristic of leadership.

Be a servant

“Servant leadership” is a well-known term, but at the heart of servant leadership is an apparent contradiction━how can one be both servant and leader at the same time? The profound truth is that one can only be a leader if one is first a servant. Any other kind of leader is hollow. Being a servant is to be committed to the the image of God in man, to the work that God is doing in and through creation, and to Man as Man. It is about the well-being of others, about the flourishing of the good, and the economy of love. The servant leader is a servant first of God and permanent things, and therefore he can be a servant of others. A leader must lay down his life for others. This takes great courage. It also takes humility.

Be a debtor

Consider the command to do unto others what you would have others do unto you. What kinds of things does this include? The list could be quite long, but it must include at least dignity and respect, listening and awareness, empathy and healing, and of course, wise action and love. Many would-be leaders seek power, which requires taking from others, and assumes a kind of creditor role (you owe me). This is the leader first, servant later (or last, or never) presumption. The servant leader, however, sees with different eyes. He asks first what he owes. When all that one has belongs to God, then one has the freedom to give. When all is God’s, then we worship God by loving others with what He has given. We owe God our lives. The genuine leader’s work begins with this understanding.

Say thank you

What is an offering to God? It is saying our thanks, giving our worship. We do this with our whole lives (or we should). But how does this look? In the day to day choices we make and actions we do, our offering to God is to give up what he has given to us━and this most often takes the form of loving and serving others. When we say thank you to those around us, to those we serve and, for some of us, to those we lead, we are declaring the joy of having participated with others in the work God has put before us. Saying thank you draws others more fully into that work, and it is another crucial part of defining reality. Begin with love, end with love.

What Leadership is Not

At this point we can get a fairly clear idea of the antithesis of leadership:

    • Leadership is not primarily about charisma. Charisma can be used, but it can be abused. Many who have charisma are not leaders. Many true leaders have little or no charisma.
    • Leadership is not primarily about being out front. Lots seek to be out front, but they are not necessarily true leaders. True leaders might even work from the back, gently pushing and encouraging.
    • Leadership is not primarily about getting others to do the work for you. Much of the time leadership is about leading by example, about rolling up one’s sleeves and doing the work so that others might follow.
    • Leadership is not primarily about knowledge. Though knowledge is important, knowledge by itself is meaningless unless used. True leaders use knowledge as a means of helping others more than themselves. Leaders are also humble about what they know, realizing that many others know more than they.
    • Leadership is not primarily about going to, or graduating from, college. College graduates do not automatically become leaders, usually the opposite. Most of the greatest leaders never received diplomas or, if they did, became leaders because of circumstances largely unrelated to their formal education.

Teaching leadership

As Christan educators we are focused on the growth and development of our students in ways that line up with their humanity. It is natural to think such an education will produce better leaders. I would hope that is true, but we must be cautious. True leadership is not birthed primarily in the classroom or through school activities, nor does it automatically grow from engaging with great stories and Socratic dialogue, and it certainly does not emerge from memorizing time lines or Latin conjugations. Though all those activities can help build a toolbox available to future leaders, leadership itself is fundamentally an orientation of one’s soul. One leads because one desires to serve. One leads because the potential virtue of others is important. One leads because Christ is our example. To lead is first to follow. Teach your students to be excellent and wise followers, then they just might become excellent and wise leaders, God willing.