Musing 8.22.20


During the meetings which the Big Ten presidents held to discuss whether or not there would be athletics this fall, a sports commentator said, “We have lots of leaders, but we don’t have any leadership.” Leadership is a common topic these days. We look for leadership in local, state, and national government. We look for leadership in schools, businesses, institutions, and churches. Things are so uncertain we yearn for someone to give us trustworthy direction, someone who will lead us through the morass.

In Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership, Garry Wills identifies three components necessary for leadership. There must be a leader; there must be followers; there must be a shared vision. A leader without followers isn’t leading anyone. Would we call Martin Luther King a leader if he had no followers? Followers are absolutely critical for leadership to happen. We don’t give enough credit to followership. We complain of a lack of leadership when it could be a lack of followership.

A group of people without a leader and vision are merely a group of people wandering aimlessly; they are not following anything. They are not going anywhere. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Lack of direction is a waste of energy. That is, if a leaderless group can summon energy to waste. Chaos is often the result.

Further, a leader and followers without a shared vision is a group that is coerced and fearful. A slave owner has slaves follow him, but that owner is not a leader of the slaves because there is no shared vision. In fact, the visions of the owner and the slaves are diametrically opposed. Because someone has followers doesn’t make them a leader. That is a bully, not a leader. This condition will lead to apathy or violence.

Further, because someone is designated a leader doesn’t mean they actually are a leader. That is what I think the sports commentator was driving at. The leader might have neither a vision nor followers. A good question to ask when we hear someone identified as a leader is, “Who are their followers and what is their shared vision?” If those questions cannot be answered, the person is probably not a leader but a manager. Managers maintain; leader lead. I have nothing against managers. Managers are, however, about the status quo and playing it safe. Leaders are about the future. Leaders take risks for their vision; and in that, they are vulnerable. That vulnerability generates an identity and solidarity with their followers. There is a sense that we are all in this together. Followers willingly choose to share the leader’s vision, take risks, be vulnerable, and move into the future.

In this troubled time, there are many people designated as leaders or wanting to be leaders in all aspects of society. The vision of the future they cast matters. We know not all visions are the same, not all visions are created equal. The “leader” whose vision we share and choose to follow will determine our future. It will determine what we shall risk and for what we shall be vulnerable. Followership matters. When all three components of leadership happen, real energy is released. There is hope. There is spirit.

Proverbs 29:18 says, “Without a vision, the people perish.”

Jesus is our leader. His first actions in the gospels were to lay out his vision and call followers. That is what the Sermon on the Mount and the call of the disciples are about (Matthew 4-7). He is still looking for followers who share his vision of love, mercy, generosity, sacrifice, forgiveness, and inclusion. His vision is a good place to start in assessing other visions. Leadership matters. Vision matters. Followership matters.

Be safe and well.