“Are you a leader or a follower?” I can’t tell you how many times adults asked me that while growing up. As a teenager, I heard this from my youth pastor, parents, coaches, friends and other caring individuals. But I don’t think they actually wanted an answer. A subtle principle was communicated through their question: Be a leader, not a follower.
But if everyone is leading, who is following? I have never heard anyone confess, “I am just a follower. Leadership is not for me.” In our recognition-hungry society, we all want to lead. Volumes have been written on leadership, but very little has been written on followership — you know, the art and skill of being a great follower. There are no articles, books, blogs or interviews on the subject. Nothing.
Many years ago, I attended a national youth summit in New Mexico with hundreds of the world’s best youth leaders. As a young leader myself, I was eager to learn from the leadership giants investing in us for several days. On the second day, I heard one of the keynote speakers, Dan Webster, challenge us on the concept of leadership of the heart. As he spoke, I found myself floating between conviction and motivation.
I pursued him at the summit and asked him questions about spiritual leadership. After that weekend in New Mexico, God graciously allowed us to become great friends. Dan has been one of my spiritual mentors for over 20 years now, and he has taught me more about leadership than anyone else. However, the most powerful thing about Dan is that he is a great follower. He is constantly studying, reading and pursuing others to learn and grow. He is a true example of followership.
There are five powerful followership principles I have learned over the years:
1. Followership is the beginning of leadership
The best leaders have mastered the art of following, and that is why people are drawn to them. Following does not mean going with the flow and doing what everyone else is doing. Following means intentionally watching, learning from and imitating others. You observe those who are walking in a manner worthy of the Lord, who live with humility and courage, who exhibit integrity and compassion, who make wise decisions. Then, you choose to follow in their footsteps. Paul, as he followed the example of Jesus, urged other believers to imitate him.
“Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” — 1 Corinthians 11:1.
You don’t follow others based on title or position but on example and influence. Those you imitate will not share about all the people who follow them; instead, they’ll tell of the people they follow, the lessons they’ve learned and which path to take.
2. Followership starts with humility
Followers admit they don’t know it all and can learn from others. They are humble. They have a thirst to grow and get better. They don’t need the glory or recognition; instead, they pass on the praise to those around them. They share the love. Every day they wake up, they clothe themselves with humility. Putting on humility needs to become a daily discipline.
“In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders. And all of you, dress yourselves in humility as you relate to one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” — 1 Peter 5:5.
3. Followership grows with serving
If being a great leader means being a great follower, then what is the secret to being a great follower? It’s being a servant. Followers have a willingness to serve others in sacrificial, humbling ways. A leader is someone who follows Christ’s example of serving.
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” — Mark 10:45.
4. Followership is perfected with Jesus
Jesus was the ultimate follower. He followed the voice and will of His Father. He served and sacrificed. He gave up His glory for our ultimate good. He didn’t seek the spotlight or the position of power. Instead, He walked with humility and compassion. He served to give, not to get. God calls us to follow Him first and to follow Him daily.
“Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” — Luke 9:23–24.
5. Followership begins at the foot of the cross
Jesus never called us to be leaders, just followers. Is your goal to lead or follow? Jesus says: Don’t lead until you follow. Jesus became the ultimate leader because He was the ultimate follower. Time to pick up your cross and follow Him.
“Summoning the crowd along with His disciples, He said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me’” — Mark 8:34.
Leadership starts with followership. Be intentional to learn how to lead by first following. God is calling us as coaches, athletes, volunteers, donors and staff to follow well. Remember: when you follow well, you lead well.
Dan Britton is a speaker, writer, coach and trainer who serves as the Chief Field Officer with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and leads thousands of staff in over 100 countries. Britton played professional lacrosse with the Baltimore Thunder and has coauthored seven books, including: One Word, WisdomWalks, and Called to Greatness. He is a frequent speaker for companies, nonprofits, sports teams, schools and churches.