Lead or Follow-When Can You Tell?

May 28, 2014

" Is the task of leadership something that is always on, or are there times when we need to turn it off and let someone else take the lead? If so, how can we tell when its time to follow, or get out of the way altogether? For many leaders that is a vexing question, especially if you feel the weight and responsibility for the success of the organization you lead. I received this comment some time ago which gave me pause: ""I feel like my generation spends a lot of time being taught how to be good leaders, which is great, but we can't all lead, all the time. So I would love to hear more about what it means to be a supportive and responsible follower. True leadership is likely knowing those moments when you should not lead. In fact you should refuse to lead."" Though the answer is complex due to a number of factors including the nature of a leader's personality, the context of their leadership, and the circumstances under which they lead, I put together a number of filters I think are helpful to the question before us. 1. Recognize the ""Who"" Everyone follows someone or something. For those in Christian ministry the ""who"" is simple, or so it should be. We lead as a follower of Christ first. That should be our primary definition, not leader. This posture should open us up to the necessity of letting others lead when the opportunity permits. Now this is easier from a Christian viewpoint, but what about those leaders who feel accountable to no one but themselves. In other words they are the ""who"" in their world. It may be a generalization but in these cases, the tendency to hold onto power may be harder to release. At least from a Christian standpoint, our source of power, calling, and authority come from Christ, which places us in a position of service primarily, not power. 2. Recognize the Need and Delegate Astute leaders are good at sensing what is needed in any given circumstance or decision.  A problem is always an opportunity for creativity and good leaders who see a need clearly will often see what is the best strategy for meeting it. In doing so, they will also recognize the person or persons best qualified to tackle the problem. Yes, some will argue that this is nothing more than a leader delegating to others, but delegation that is done well, transfers the authority and responsibility of those enlisted by the leader. One of the most difficult things for a young, inexperienced leader to do is to delegate well to others. This one discipline goes a long way in building up cohesive teams and raising up other leaders. 3. Recognize and Focus on Your Strengths One of the major mantras in today's contemporary leadership material is to play within your strengths. This is good advice, especially since it exposes the opposite. It will also make you aware of your limitations and weaknesses. A good leader will always attempt to match strengths to the position or task, that suits their natural abilities. Most leaders, don't like to admit their areas of limitations, and it does take some level of personal confidence to allow others to lead because they are better suited to a situation than you are. The organizational chart may have your name at the top, but the organization will never thrive if you do not utilize the strengths of everyone involved. 4. Recognize Your Leadership Zone If you believe that leadership is all about stroking your ego, or building an empire for yourself, then you will likely struggle with letting go of anything and letting someone else take the reins. But for leaders who can release themselves to follow when the situation demands it are usually those who have a healthy view of themselves. They understand the importance of self-assessment. This goes somewhat hand in hand with the previous point but a healthy self-image is key. Good leaders know when to step back and take on the role of mentor, teacher, or coach. In order for their team to grow and develop as leaders, they should be allowed to make mistakes on their own without fear. I do want to add one caveat though. If you like things neat, organized, tidy, or done a certain way, this will at some point get messy. Here is where I have the most difficulty when it comes to this question. We have such a dearth of quality leaders that the question becomes almost moot because of it. I know this is a subjective judgment but for me, the scandals that have monopolized our political, corporate, and ecclesiastical world make it difficult to think in terms of ""following."" Because ""following"" has the notion of entrusting yourself into the hands of another with at least the expectation that the person you are following is one of honesty and integrity. I'm not sure the question was ever meant to deal with positional or hierarchal leadership structures, but only for those situations when you willingly surrender yourself to the leading of another. That is why it is important as a Christian leader to recognize your place as a follower of Christ first and foremost. I would love to hear your thoughts. What would you say to the question of leading or following? What are your experiences? Drop me a note and let's continue this discussion.  "


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