Leadership is overrated. There, I’ve said it…

Recently in a meeting of church and educational professionals I voiced this bias and received a less than enthusiastic response. Most of the persons attending the meeting had some investment in the leadership juggernaut which has dominated Christian culture in the United States and beyond for the last three decades. I might as well have questioned the validity of the Trinity given the reaction!

Mega churches, judicatories, national denominational bodies, and parachurch organizations have sponsored leadership conferences in spades over the last several years featuring the best of the best from corporate, education, political, and military life. I have personally enjoyed and benefited from these offerings, digesting and passing on bullet points, quotes, and strategies from these experts. However, I must confess a certain weariness has set in as of late. I am tired of being advised on “how to be a better leader”. Blasphemous, I know. Bill Self, my friend and wise pastoral sage, has often quipped, “The Christian leader may be the most “advised” professional in the world!” Given the difficult landscape we face on a daily basis in the local church, and the tectonic shifts in our culture at large, it’s no wonder we line up for any and all the help we can get. Our churches are struggling and we long for success.  It is actually quite sad how dependent the Christian community has become on the so called leadership experts given the richness of our theological identity as followers of Christ.

Recently a college admissions officer shared that out of hundreds of applicants who were asked whether they were leaders or followers, only one person admitted to being a follower. Admission accepted! As it turns out, the university surmised at least one follower should be admitted among the overwhelming preponderance of leaders, otherwise what’s a leader to do? This simple example illustrates the illogical notion that what the world needs unequivocally is more leaders. What we desperately need are more people who understand the power and role of “followship”.

I’m not sure exactly what my issue is with the current leadership craze. I tend to be a contrarian by nature so when anything becomes wildly popular I’m prone to back out the door. However, I am closing in on one possible answer.

It’s my suspicion that the leadership crowd is often fueled by an underlying desire for power and control, two dynamics which impede authentic leadership. At the end of the day, notwithstanding all the talk about servant leadership, someone is still sitting on top of the mountain with all the chips (and money!). I’m also convinced that those who have a well- built website, catchy 30 second sound bites, and a list of 25 “must do’s for success” know less about real leadership than my middle school football coach, who was in my mind one of best motivators and leaders I have encountered! His feet were solidly planted on the earth and he understood the art of measuring your words.

Leonard Sweet, semiotician, historian, and “theological poet” has written in his book, “I am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus”, that “following is the most underrated form of leadership in existence” (p. 14).

Isn’t it ironic people who lead in Christian organizations somehow miss the significance of “followship”? Jesus made it very clear he was not looking for leaders but rather followers. How much clearer can you be than to say, “Follow me”? Yet, for some reason we undervalue and even dismiss the notion of being a follower and pander after more stimulation from the leadership experts.

Derik Sivers presented a TED talk a few years ago touting the strength of the “First Follower” concept. The Washington Post lists this talk as one of the top five TED talks on leadership. Mr. Sivers premise is that leadership is over-rated and that it’s the first follower who creates the leader. If the leader has the wisdom to treat the first follower as an equal, then she will stay and join in a particular movement. The first follower also legitimizes the leader in his or her efforts, transforming the “lone nut” into a leader! Once the first follower is fully engaged and embraced by the leader then others are encouraged and free to enter into the movement with confidence and trust. Conversely, the movement dies if no one follows.

What would it look like for an individual active in the Christian movement to consider becoming a first follower? How might a few first followers change the landscape of your particular church or field of service?

What if persons who are eaten up with leadership discussions changed the conversation to a dialogue with others on mutual submission and discipleship acknowledging Christ as the leader?

Henry Minzburg, the preeminent author on management, advocates for an idea he calls, “Communityship” as an alternative to leadership. He asserts that you and I know “Communityship” when we experience it. One feels the energy in the room. The personal commitment of the people and the collective engagement with the tasks at hand are signs of purposefulness and forward progress. People do not have to be formally empowered because they are naturally engaged.   The organization respects them so they respect it. He contests our preoccupation with leadership and advocates for “just enough leadership” best found embedded in the fabric of the community experience not standing above or beyond the community.

Obviously leadership is a valued quality. No group or movement progresses without capable and trusted leadership. We will always need leaders. But what if we begin to build a culture of “followship” as well? Every good leader must first be a devoted follower. Let’s all find a place to invest ourselves as faithful followers. What a novel idea for those who purport to be disciples of Jesus!

Randy Ashcraft
Randy Ashcraft has served as a Senior Minister in congregations across the United States for over 30 years. He currently serves as Pastor in Residence at the Virginia Baptist Mission Board specializing in Ministerial Health and Wellness, and Contemplative Spirituality. He is a certified Thomas Concept instructor and received his training in coaching through the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is a graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Texas Christian University where he received a Doctor of Ministry degree with an emphasis in transitional leadership. Randy and Ann are the principals at REDclay Concepts, a leadership and coaching organization focused on strategic planning, non profit board development, and executive coaching. REDclay works primarily in the health care field with clients such as Bon Secours and Inova Health Care System of Northern Virginia. Randy also works as a Congregational Engagement consultant for Bon Secours, Richmond. He currently serves on the Duke Divinity School Baptist House Board and is a member of Metro Ministers, a peer learning community promoting ministerial excellence. Randy is married to Ann, and resides in Richmond, Va. He is a coach for CHC.