Not everyone can be a leader

Not everyone can be a leader April 11, 2015


By Stephen Milliken

Confession: I have a problem with leadership rhetoric. I do not like how I have heard it discussed, practiced, or even taught. For years, I’ve had a rocky relationship with the word and I couldn’t quite pinpoint the problem. Still, the uneasy feeling continues to fester to such an extent that it demands my time and attention.

Our understanding and practice of leadership and influence, somewhere down the line, became conflated and confused. Not “everyone can be a leader” or “everyone leads” in the ways these phrases are typically understood; rather “everyone has influence” in ways that are expressed both by leading people and by following people. Our penchant for focusing on the former to the detriment of the latter has skewed our capacity to invite humility, quiet, and patience into what it means to influence Leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin of influence.

I think it is important that leadership is defined in a way that makes sense of leading. If there is leadership happening, there must reflexively be following happening; They are mutually inclusive and interdependent. And in no way do I think that this is a poor lot for either the leader or the follower.

I want to suggest that leadership and authority can be expressed in a way that is a positive experience for both leader and follower. And in addition, echoing Andy Crouch, that power and authority might possibly be used rightly and well. Yet, we shy away from believing this. Maybe it is because we have seen and experienced leadership that fails to lead well, but I do not think that is cause to abandon all hope for, or belief in, the possibility of leadership and authority done well and done right.

And yet, I see our leadership “positions” as sometimes fluid and at other times rigid. Within relationships that are equitable (brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors, etc.), leadership and followership flow back and forth like the ebb of a dance; at one moment I direct the motion like the blades of a fan, at another I follow along like a leaf on the wind. Here nuance, subtlety, and intimacy reign – a knowing relationship guides the current of the flow. Gaining the practical relational skills necessary to both lead and follow becomes central to the formation of all kinds of relationships that communities are built upon. All of our relationships would be better served when we learn how to position ourselves confidently towards those we direct as well as humbly to those we serve.

We so fill leadership rhetoric with our wishes, desires, and hopes that leadership becomes a catch-all that loses all sense of itself. We have institutions, programs, conferences and the like that are built entirely around concepts of leadership. We have made significant strides in our collective understanding of leadership because of these endeavors. And yet we have rendered the term leadership meaningless and sterile. How can I focus on practicing leadership if it is incorporated into absolutely everything? What’s the point of pursuing leadership if everyone is always doing leadership? What’s the point of leading if everyone is always doing leadership? Who am I leading anyway? Part of the consequences of this confusion, at its worst, is the reality that individualism has so undergirded our conceptions of leadership that we really only ever end up leading ourselves.

Granted, there is in fact talk of and work in team-based or collaborative leadership. Yet I still must ask the question, if all of us are leaders collectively, who is following us? And, how are we following one another? Am I really following other leaders if I am trying to lead myself? When have I put myself wholly under the leadership and direction of someone else?

What about the notion so current within Christian circles of servant leadership? Now in some ways, one may suggest that servant leadership touches on the very elements of serving and following that I’m talking about. I think that is true. But here’s my beef: Oftentimes the rhetoric of servant leadership functions in a way that satisfies the sentimental palate of contemporary Christianity while in a dangerous way, maintains the fundamental function of and disposition towards ego-driven leadership. Because we are driven to pursue leadership, our egos want to maintain a skewed sense of power and control, holding onto the term “leadership” in servant leadership.

At its worst, this disposition would have us become “do-gooders” bent on sparsely expressing small acts of service – buying donuts for the team and opening doors for our colleagues – while maintaining our final say-so or pushing our ideas upon our team. To be sure, small acts of service are the life and breath of following, yet I want us to understand and know the psychological and spiritual danger in using those acts to prop up power dynamics.

Let’s call a spade a spade. There are times, moments, even positions from which we lead, direct, and have authority over others and this can, in its simplicity and coherence, be called leadership. Yet there are also times, moments, and even positions from which we follow, obey, submit to, listen, and learn from others which, in its own simplicity and coherence, ought to be called followership. At its worst, servant leadership gives us a false sense of service and following all the while maintaining our ego drive to access power and control.

So in a world inundated with leadership rhetoric, how do we follow? Christian faith and general morality give us three guides: 1) Patience in bearing with one another, 2) Being open and listening to other’s ideas, and 3) Humbly submitting our ideas, endeavors, and hopes to a community, company, or organization we understand as more important than ourselves. It is these skills and character qualities that are the foundation of civility, partnership, and compromise – necessities in working with others in accomplishing anything, be it building a bridge, starting a business, or maintaining a marriage and family.

The way systems, organizations, companies and communities are fundamentally structured demands that most people must be at least equally follower and leader, if not more followers than leaders. Often those who follow have a deeper, more substantive impact upon those around them than do people in explicit leading positions. That is why some of our greatest leaders throughout history are reluctant leaders, those who know the dangers of leadership yet take on that burden out of a sense of duty and care towards others.

And here we are back at the essence of our misdirection in leadership. We are not forming people who are humble, dedicated, reluctant leaders who only become leaders in the formal sense out of a felt communal or societal need; no, we are forming people who are hell-bent on boosting their ego, having been told they are leaders and they are entitled to lead others. Which kind of leader would you like to employ? One who has cultivated a sense of leadership that is ego-driven or one who has cultivated a balanced skill set of leading and following, who is aware of their own inner desire for power and control, and is reluctant to take such a position? You tell me.

10937716_651823365129_1258682656_nStephen Milliken is the Assistant Dean of Student Life and Resident Director at Montreat College. He recently lived and worked as a resident intern at Lamppost Farm in Columbiana, OH, a non-profit ministry and educational farm seeking to serve the Kingdom by helping to facilitate relationship with God, creation, others, and self.


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