Do Not Be Called Leaders
Did you know there is actually very little written in the Bible supporting hierarchical human leadership? In fact, Jesus was extremely cautious about, if not totally opposed to, humans having power over other humans: “Do not be called leaders…” (Mt 23:10).
In spite of this, a cottage industry of leadership resources has been produced by U.S. “Christian” publishers to develop, train, and multiply hierarchical leaders (not to mention the myriad leadership books published by “secular” booksellers.) Ironically, I too wrote a leadership book called The Great Commandment Leader (2011). However, my book focuses much more on being a servant than being a leader, and my second book, In Search of Jesus the Anarchist (2017), further calls for the dismantling of the systems that create the sinful divide between leader and follower.
Over the last fifteen years or so I have tried to emphasize a new way of organizing life and society that promotes a leadership structure that is similar to the upside-down triangle popularized by various “servant leadership” models. Unfortunately, most of the servant models I have seen focus on individual leadership style changes, and not on transforming societies. Simply put, Western education and Christianity does not really teach a servant leadership or followership model of societal or economic life. So, what might it look like if we taught followership instead of leadership? Could we have a course (or, better yet, a course of study) called “Followership Studies?” Maybe there is one, but I have not seen it (and even the many new books on followership don’t address the misguided systemic hierarchical construction of almost all of our social and cultural institutions).
Thus, if I were to develop a course on followership, the outline might be something like: (1) Follow Down: An Incarnational/Non-Hierarchical Model (self-emptying); (2) Follow Up: Multi-Level Communication (self-sacrificing); and, (3) Follow Through: Finishing Well (self-denying). Though these three topics could engender a lot of sub-topics, my reflections today are on just a few overarching ideas.
In my book on leadership, I challenged the prevailing definition of leadership as influence. Though, I do not necessarily say that “leadership as influence” was wrong, but how that influence was applied. For most leadership authors, influence is defined as the process of how a leader uses his power, privilege, and resources to get others to do what the leader or the organization thinks is best. My definition flipped the script and said that leadership is incarnational—it is the giving away of the leader’s power, privilege, and resources to enable followers to become leaders themselves. Jesus said, in reference to his followers, “Students are not greater than their teacher. But the student who is fully trained will become like the teacher.” (Lk 6:40, HCSB).
So, Follow-Down is the humble (down-to-earth) movement towards recreating a society of equal and dignified human beings through self-emptying. Follow-Up, then, is the process by which people continually divest themselves of their privilege and resources through self-sacrificing for the sake of others. Unfortunately, the top-down, hierarchical, and neo-liberal capitalist system will always reassert itself, because that is how it is designed. Thus, the new flat/non-hierarchical society must be fought for continually; it must be perpetually communicated (followed-up) in different ways, primarily through loving, self-sacrificing actions matched with repeated words (e.g. Repent, the Kin-dom of God is near”). Jesus was the exemplary teacher/healer in this regard. Like Jesus, we must follow-up with a ceaseless demonstration of the Good News of God’s Kin-Dom for all people.
Lastly, as we incarnate by following down, and follow-up through a demonstrable program of the Gospel, then we follow-through by being consistent with our program of societal change. Accordingly, we recognize, as fundamental, that the oppressed and the poor will not follow if we do not follow-through. And by following-through, I am talking about knowing that we as “servant-leaders” are called to die to self (self-denying), not once in some mystical way, but through continually dying to self so that others may live. This can only be done through the Spirit of Christ coursing through our very being.
I have to admit that I don’t do this well. I am a work-in-progress. This is partly due to my own psychology and familial/cultural influences. Nevertheless, I refuse to beat myself up and see myself as the primary problem when the entire system of hierarchy, competition, and power that we all have been raised and currently live in (neo-liberal capitalism and hierarchical church systems) is opposed to what Jesus called for in his inauguration of the Kin-dom of God.
Thus, my emphasis now on followership focuses more on the societal possibilities of Jesus’s incarnational model. And though it may seem that this idea is not possible, that, overwhelmingly, people are always going to be followers and not desirous of leadership, even if this is true in our current reality, it is not true of human potential. Jesus’s Kin-dom of God, or what I have called the Commonweal of Love, is not unrealistic, it is simply focused on the potential of humanity, not on its current oppressed state.
A life full of meaning will be marked by our struggle for fulfilling our own potential as individual human beings and our struggle for a society where all people can fulfill their potential in intersubjective and interdependent mutuality.
© Paul Dordal, 2018