Following well.

“If you want to lead well, you must follow well”. This phrase has bounded round my mind over the last few months as I’ve spent some time looking at aspects of leadership.

I’ve smiled and nodded at the phrase whenever I’ve come across it, but recently I think it smacked me round the head. The question that jumped out at me loudly and clearly was “Who do you follow well?” I tried a little to push it away but it was just staring at me like this horribly awkward question I’d never asked myself before.

I grew to like the question as it challenged me, so I felt it deserved a little more pondering. It became less of a “who” and more of a “when do I follow well?” question. It got me wondering what good following looks like. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this explored, written about or taught in much depth, which is surprising because without followers there are no leaders. I mean sure, we’re disciplined from an early age to be obedient, but I wasn’t convinced that good following could be reduced to simple obedience. So what is there to say about being a good follower?

The bible is a book written by followers, about followers, for followers. The phrase “follow me” appears repeatedly and is Jesus’ common invitation. But our culture is not obsessed with following, its obsessed with leading – and the more leadership is encouraged the more followership is resisted, it would appear. Everyone wants to be the leader.

Knowing how hard I can find it to follow others I started paying a bit more attention to my relationships and tried to note the times when I enjoyed following, or at least thought I followed well. After a few days passed I found myself in Brighton with the family. On the drive home there was traffic and mum – a few miles ahead – called to warn me. I would have been content to sit it out, but dad (being allergic to traffic) wanted to find an alternative route. They’d pulled in and waited for me to catch up. “Follow us” were my mothers words as she put down the phone. It sounded simple enough.

Within about three minutes dad was heading in the opposite direction I wanted to be going in. Every turn he took (and there were many) seemed to take us yet further away from London. I questioned his plan immediately. I started scanning my brain for better routes out and wondered whether I should ring him to share my opinions. The urge to turn on google maps and check the logic my dad was using was getting stronger and stronger with every passing second. I quickly became irritated and longed to be sitting in the traffic. I went off on one in my head …“I’ll bet this takes us ten times longer than it would if we’d just stayed put”, “surely if we just headed north on any of these roads we’d start heading in the right direction”, “I bet he’s making this up as he goes along”, “should I just turn off and go my own way?”

It took me a while to notice that I had been asked to follow them, had agreed to follow them, and then had proceeded to question every decision being made. This was definitely not what good following looked like. My car was neatly trailing behind theirs, but I was far from following well. In its simplicity and obviousness I noted one of the core barriers to following well….believing I always know better.

Mum grew up in Brighton so they both knew the area a lot better than I did. Dad has a pretty decent sense of direction – I don’t. He had a TomTom – I didn’t. There may be times in life when I do actually know better, but this certainly wasn’t one of them.

I laughed to myself as I realised just how difficult I can find it to follow others. I decided I wanted to be someone who enjoyed following others and learnt to do it well. I wanted to support my dad, not question him. If I hadn’t have been so pre-occupied with not being the car in front I would have paid a lot more attention to the beautiful English countryside we were driving through and enjoyed that instead.

I’ve continued to sit with the idea of followership over the last few weeks, and here’s a few things I think it takes to follow well:

1. Make an active choice to follow.

You might think you know best, you may even be right – but it’ll do you good to learn to be a follower. You’ve only grown in life because others have given you the space to lead, so do the same for someone else. Chances are that it wont happen by accident, so be intentional about it.

2. Be wholehearted

If you’re gonna follow, be wholehearted about it. Celebrate the leadership of others and encourage and support them in whatever way you can. Give your whole-self to the task, don’t be less enthusiastic because you’re not in charge – give as much as you would to your own venture.

3. Follow through

Don’t change route as soon as you don’t like the direction someone is going in. Don’t try to course-correct or be too quick to share your opinion (judgement?). Let them lead. You may end up going the long way round, but you’ll get there eventually and you’ll both be the better for it if you take a step back.

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