If you look for books on leadership on Amazon, you’ll get more than 30,000 results. It’s overwhelming. Advice on how to lead is seemingly endless. But how to follow? And follow wisely? That’s a question we should be asking.
So we did. We talked to a few thinkers whose work centers in part on this question: What is faithful followership in an era of public leadership failures — whether that’s at work, in the church, in the political sphere, or elsewhere? Here’s what we asked and what they said.
If you gave one piece of advice on followership — how to follow (and wisely) — what would it be?
Charisma may be a quality of some good leaders, but the ability to draw followers does not mean a person should be followed.
Check their credentials. What training (education) and/or experience do they have that has prepared them for this position? It is important to know what training, experience, or theological framework has formed a teacher. An automatic warning flag for me is if a person is not upfront about their credentials or lack thereof — especially if they claim spurious titles or degrees.
Some things to investigate:
1. If a person claims to have written several books on theological topics, I look up their books as well as the publisher (there is a difference between a self-published book and a book published by Oxford University Press).
2. If a person claims to have a graduate degree, I look up their institution (there is a difference between unaccredited colleges and accredited universities).
3. If a website is maintained by a particular organization, I look it up to see not only who it is but what networks it is connected to.
Think about it this way: If you are allowing a person to speak into you, shouldn’t you know who speaks into that person?
— Beth Allison Barr, James Vardaman Endowed Professor of History at Baylor University, author of The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Brazos 2021)
So many of us were formed as followers under leaders who were very similar to each other: extroverted, able, older, white, cisgender, straight, Protestant Christian men. Therefore, we are wise to challenge ourselves to look to those who meet few or none of these criteria and to evaluate often, asking ourselves, when we’re feeling less confidence or more annoyance, how much of those feelings relate to unfamiliarity.
— Sarah B. Drummond, Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, author of Dynamic Discernment: Reason, Emotion, and Power in Change Leadership (Pilgrim 2019)
Follow with your eyes wide open. Don’t ignore red flags like high turnover and burned bridges. They don’t need to be perfect, but they need to be humble about their mistakes and imperfections. Ask questions. And always remember: A leader who can’t be questioned can’t be trusted.
— Andre Henry, program manager for the Racial Justice Institute at Christians for Social Action, Written in Protest columnist for Religion News Service
Look for key characteristics in a leader:
1. A leader aware of power dynamics, especially if that leader looks like me — white and male. Is the leader surrounded by diverse voices and does she or he learn from those voices?
2. Can a leader state the negative side of how we experience them? Do they say, “this is just the way it is, deal with it.” Or do they say, “I am aware that I tend to have half-baked ideas, and I need to listen to more careful voices.” Look for someone who is not just self-aware but who is aware of those they influence.
3. How do they steward their pain? How do they react in the face of someone else’s pain? Are they quick with advice? Do they shrink another’s pain down to a size they can manage? Or do they seek to understand, not dismiss?
4. How do they react to negative feedback? With self-pity and gaslighting or with gratefulness?
And I would first ask other followers these questions before asking the leader. Be very wary of high deference.