Followership

 
I walk three to seven miles every day.  On weekends, I usually find time to take a long hike in the wilderness.  On weekdays, I walk down the flanks of the Hollywood hills to the subway station in the morning, and back up to our house in the evening.  I say “hi” to the many dog-walkers I encounter along the way.  I’ve mused to myself that my daily hikes are “God-walks”.  God holds an invisible leash attached to me, and I follow where God leads.   Understanding that I’m on a God-walk snaps me out of the small-“s” selfishness of thinking that my life is my own, that I make all my own decisions consciously, that I’m the master of my own fate and the captain of my own ship.  Surely I have a measure of choice about which directions to take.  But I am most human, and most humane, when I am humbled into awareness of my followership.

I work at an “elite” university – whatever that means, other than the fact that only 17% of undergraduate students who apply are admitted.  At such schools, leadership is not just highly valued.  It is a cultic incantation.  One sign of its worship is the number of clubs on campus: 1,000, on a campus of 45,000 students.  I know enough about the reality of these clubs to understand that the real function of many if not most of them is to enable students to put words like “president” or “chairperson” on their resumes.  Our students believe they must be leaders to get admitted, they must be leaders while they are in our university, and they must be leaders when they graduate.

But when they graduate, almost all of them are going to be followers.  They will have bosses they must follow.  They will have work-place procedures they must follow.  They will have corporate dogmas and doctrines they must follow.  It will be a while – probably a long while – before they can claim to be real leaders.

And even leaders do a lot of following – whether they know and admit it or not.  I’m reading a devastatingly insightful book:  “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” by Anand Giridharadas.  Its premise:  members of the global money and power elite have created an echo chamber, tricking themselves into believing that their charitable impulses can save the world without engaging in politics or changing the system.  Thus they disempower democracy and disregard the input of the real people they purport to be helping.  These leaders follow each other into the delusion that they are the saviors of the world, but they are the same people running the systems that created the drastic income inequality and other social and environmental problems that plague the world in the first place.  (Look here for a future “musing” on the implications of this important book….)

So we need a good culture and ethic of followership.  The institutions of our society need people humble enough to take good direction, but also insightful enough to know when they are getting bad direction.  We need smart followers who are eager to learn from those who know more than they do.  Smart followers who help their leaders get past their egos so they can accept input when the followers know more than the leaders.  We need wise followers who set their egos aside for larger causes that are right.  Wise followers who can tell the difference between leaders worthy of following and leaders who are headed over the cliff.  Sensitive followers who discern when to work behind the scenes to fix things that their leaders are dismissing, and when to blow the whistle to prevent disaster.  Sensitive followers who gently guide their leaders toward more effective leadership.  If we have better followers, better leaders will follow.

“The greatest among you will be your servant.  All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Matthew 28: 11-12 NRSV)  The Christian faith teaches humility:  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” (Philippians 2: 5-7 NRSV) 

We are the humble followers of a humble carpenter/rabbi who was a humble follower of Ultimate Reality.  Christianity is wildly counter-cultural in the context of universities and corporations.  But such institutions could learn a lot from our faith.  Because out of humble followership grows humble leadership.  Spiritually-awakened followers produce spiritually-awakened servant leaders who avoid echo-chambers of catch-phrases of elitist thinking, and mix with people at every level of society.  Leaders who listen to voices other than those of their social and economic peers.  Leaders who serve the people they lead, with attentiveness and respect and support and warm curiosity.  Leaders who check in regularly with those they supervise, with humble, open interest in their points of view.  Leaders who follow their followers. 

So let our churches become schools of followership… an incalculably valuable skill that our universities don’t teach.

JIM BURKLO

Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG   Weblog: MUSINGS

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