“But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. . . . They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. . . .For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing—no, that was impossible.” (George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant).
What is a leader? What is a follower? Where does the one end and the other begin? The short story excerpted above, by George Orwell, a writer with more than a point or two to make about leadership, succinctly captures the ambiguity of it all in his description of a colonial British “leader” serving in Lower Burma, who simultaneously hates both the role forced on him by the Empire and the legion of “natives” (read “followers”) who thwart his every move. This man has power and authority, but he also possesses the growing realization that he is an “absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces.” His actions—particularly in this story, where he shoots an elephant for the sole purpose of avoiding appearing foolish in front of the crowd—are dictated not from the inner locus of control we imagine leaders to possess, but from a basic weakness and confusion and fear. He is supposed to be a leader—but his leadership is an illusion.
Maybe all leadership is an illusion. Who is really in control? Maybe control isn’t even the question. What leaders want—good leaders anyway—is to make things better. But too often leaders are thwarted, ignored, marginalized and ridiculed by the people they seek to lead. Often, as in the story above, there are valid questions regarding who is really doing the leading. Is the leader the person up front wearing a particular kind of hat or are the real puppet masters the faceless legions in the audience?
At the 2008 Leadership Round table at Andrews University, I was asked develop a creative writing activity for participants after our evening buffet on the first day. The focus of the evening was creativity in leadership, the idea being that as leaders, we need to spend time “in the moment” where we’re not thinking about the past or the future or what others are thinking of us or what we’re going to do next. Having been told to expect up to thirty people, I’d brought forty sheets of paper, each containing the first line of a novel. I’d spent my Saturday night scouring my own bookshelves for appropriate first lines and then I’d found a website that yielded a few more. Each person started with one sheet of paper and one single sentence. These sentences ranged from “It was the day my grandmother exploded” to “People know me here” to “It was love at first sight.” Each person was to use the provided opening sentence as a prompt to write one additional sentence. Then we would pass our papers to the left, the next person adding one sentence to what the previous person had written. We would continue passing the papers until the sheets were full or until we ran out of time. When finished, we would have four complete “stories” or pieces of creative writing, at the very least.
Who is the leader in an activity like this? There’s me, of course, the person who
designed and policed the activity—but I was also a participating member of the group. And in a writing activity like this, you very quickly realize that every member is simultaneously a leader—in the sense that your sentence influences the sentence the person to your left writes—but at the same time you are a follower. What you write depends very much on what the person before you wrote. The four of us quickly recognized our individual power as leaders and started messing with each other—deliberately writing sentences we knew would stymie the person forced to try to maintain the narrative flow by adding a sentence that made sense and contributed to the development of the story. At the same time we were continually brought back to a thudding reality when a paper with an impossible thought came our way and we—laughing and groaning—had to find some way to make it work while still remaining committed to making the task impossible for the next person. What is leadership if not this constant dance, the bouncing back and forth between different individuals, each with their own perspective, sometimes with their own unique way of messing up your plans? And in what way does the messiness of it all make anyone the leader?
We don’t usually think of a single individual as being both a leader and a follower.
Society teaches us to compartmentalize people; it even encourages us to think about people who “have” leadership skills and those who don’t. Some people, we like to imagine, are simply born leaders—and it is hard or inconvenient to think of them also as followers. Richard Martin (2008) notes, in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, that Western culture, particularly in the United States, doesn’t highly value followers. “Fascination with leaders far outweighs any consideration for followers. But at some point everyone is following, rather than leading” (p. 8). Even presidents rely on and defer to the counsel of experts they have appointed to know more than they do about economics or war or the law or education. But no one tends to get very excited about the idea of being a follower. It is such a tentative moniker, sheeplike and valueless. If it was a color, it would be a washed out beige.
The preference for leaders over followers is certainly apparent in the Christian church. There are endless seminars created and books published with the aim of instructing individuals on how to be leaders, but very little material available addressing what it means to be a good follower—or even the acknowledgement that the follower is the absolutely necessary flip side of the leadership coin. Consider the title of this publication: The Journal of Applied Christian Leadership. If there’s a journal focusing on Christian followership, I haven’t heard of it. But followers are perhaps the most essential ingredient in any organization or enterprise. It’s no accident that Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase from the Gettysburg Address, “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” has taken hold as the ultimate expression of democracy. A good leader remembers that it’s all about the people—the followers. An even better leader remembers that he is one of the people and makes it a point to be a good follower as well as a leader.
What does a good follower look like? And how do leaders cultivate good followers?
This question in and of itself might be problematic. As Lundin and Lancaster note,
“Ironically, the skills of the follower are seen as being the responsibility of the leader, as if followers are not responsible for themselves” (Lundin & Lancaster, 1990, p. 19). Perhaps the real problem is the arbitrary division between the leader and follower, and the consequential shifts in status as a result of this division. In reality, there isn’t a huge difference between a leader and a follower—even if we sometimes lack the language to describe good follower-ship, probably because we rarely think about followers or how they should be. Lundin and Lancaster observe that “we all know that leaders are expected to be visionary, decisive, communicative, energetic, committed, and responsible. But what about followers? Are the characteristics of successful followers so different from those of leaders? Not really” (Lundin & Lancaster, 1990, p. 19).
The character Ruth is probably one of the most famous biblical followers with her
statement to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16, NIV). She followed Naomi’s instructions in dealing with her future husband, Boaz. But Ruth seems to have leadership qualities too. Her pluckiness and hard-working nature, her initiative, her boldness, and even her determination to follow Naomi stand out as leadership-worthy traits. Doesn’t strength make you a leader? Knowing what you want? Not cowering in fear but striking out with courage?
Maybe this journal should be called The Journal of Applied Christianity–fully recognizing and elevating Martin Luther’s “priesthood of all believers.” Or maybe, rather than changing our name, we could make sure to remember the shifting roles we all fill—sometimes leading, other times following. As Christians, our ultimate goal is to do everything well, to “do all to the Glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). A smart leader will continue to be a follower throughout his or her life—seeking guidance where necessary, looking to the words and actions of others for inspiration and energy, and valuing those he or she works with. Above everything else, a Christian leader will remember that he is indeed nothing more than a follower. John the Baptist, a powerful and charismatic leader in his own right, kept the proper perspective and reverted to the role of follower when questioned by the Pharisees. “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (John 1: 25, NIV). John replied, “. . . among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (v. 26).
Of course, there is one important aspect of leadership that does make it quite distinct from followership and that is responsibility. You don’t need me to tell you that being a “leader” is not as glamorous as it sounds to those with less authority and fewer responsibilities. All it really means is that the proverbial buck stops with you. As the British colonial “leader” in George Orwell’s story discovered, the position of top dog can be perilous and demoralizing. Herbert White (1987) notes that “leadership, much as we admire it in the abstract, is something we suspect in the specific. This is because leaders seek authority and authority is a dirty word in organizational communications” (p. 68).
But courage is not a dirty word anywhere. Neither is integrity. It takes both courage and integrity to lead—and to follow—in both cases accepting the ambiguities and difficulties of the tasks ahead. Through the long lens of history, who knows how our deeds might be perceived? It could be that a good follower, in hindsight, appears to have really been an extraordinary leader. Better still, a great man or woman, one to whom God could say “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21, NIV).
- Lundin, S. C., & Lancaster, L. C. (1990). Beyond leadership . . . The importance of followership. The Futurist, May-June, 18-22.
- Martin, R. (2008). Followership: The natural complement to leadership. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June, 8-11.
- Orwell, G. (1936). Shooting an elephant. Retrieved on November 26, 2008, from http://www.orwell.ru/library/articles/elephant/english/e_eleph
- White, H. S. (1987). Oh, where have all the leaders gone? Library Journal, October 1, 68-69.
B. A. De Oliveira teaches writing for the Department of Leadership and Educational Administration at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. She is also editor of LIFE.info – a Seventh-day Adventist lifestyle and outreach magazine published in the United Kingdom.