Lead, follow or what?

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Reflections from an experienced follower and leader

There is a common saying that goes, “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” That means you should lead if you can, but if you can’t then follow the leader. But don’t be a stick-in-the-mud who stands around and grumbles. Move it along or move it out, dude, you’re slowing everyone down!

When it comes to leading, following or getting out of the way, I can tell you what I prefer to do. Get out of the way. Whoops, I’m not supposed to admit that, right? I should try to be a dedicated leader or a cooperative follower. Mostly I’ve been both. I’ve led a lot of things and followed others who have led. But lately I’ve wondered if it’s worth the effort. In these flakey, faddish times, getting out of the way actually sounds pretty good.

These are tough times for leaders and followers. If you want to be a leader, you’d better get ready for the barrage of passive resistance and outright criticism. Criticism has become so popular in our culture that it’s created an entire literary genre known as blogging. Anyone who enters even the slightest wedge of limelight becomes a target for cheap shots and rotten tomatoes. It’s a wonder that anyone wants to be a leader these days, with all the negativity and nitpicking it attracts.

Following isn’t much easier. For one thing, what do you follow? There are thousands of possibilities. There’s a new craze called Twitter, for instance, where people write mini-blogs about the breathless excitement of their daily lives. (“Eating a taco. Yum. Comments?”) Those who sign up to receive the blogs and type feedback are actually called “followers.” There was a buzz recently when actor Ashton Kutcher and news provider CNN raced to get a million followers on their respective Twitter accounts. Kuthcer won. Which makes sense. CNN merely gives information on world events, whereas Ashton Kutcher is famous for his cultural contributions towards, uh, being Ashton Kutcher.

So maybe it isn’t accurate to say there are thousands of things to follow out there. Probably more like millions. Getting out of the way—way out of the way—sounds better all the time.

But I suppose it’s not the answer. I guess that’s why I usually end up leading or following even when I feel ambivalent about the whole thing. Somebody has to do it. Though it can be an exasperating job, leaders are needed to step up and show us the way. Though there’s risk involved, followers are needed to throw their support behind visionaries who can change the world, or at least their little corner of it.

For what it’s worth, here are a few reflections on leading and following from a longtime leader and follower. I mean me, in case you thought you were finally going to hear from someone smart. Sorry about that. On to the thoughts.

  • First, it’s OK to be a reluctant leader, maybe even preferable. I get worried when someone is too eager to lead. This person might be in it for ego or prestige more than the good of the people. When reluctant leaders fret about their worthiness for the job, it shows they care. They want what’s best for the followers and don’t want to let them down.
  • Second, it’s important to be a discerning follower. We shouldn’t run after personalities or trends merely because they are popular at the moment. We should, you know, think a little. Perhaps celebrities aren’t the best role models for doing life. Maybe entertainment isn’t the most important thing we could pursue. There are all kinds of things we can follow without a second thought. Better to have a second thought, and then a third thought, in order to follow wisely.
  • Third, it’s all right to get out of the way sometimes. Leaders need to take breaks to regain energy and perspective. They also need to sense when it’s appropriate to step aside to let new leaders take over. Followers need to get out of the way after they’ve taken on too many responsibilities and shouldered too heavy a load. A time of rest and reflection can help restore their strength and passion to serve.
  • Fourth, it’s not good to get out of the way and stay there. Sometimes I feel like doing that. Forget the leading or following, I’m outta here. Let someone else deal with all the hassles and heartaches of trying to do good in the world. I have these feelings, but then I get over them. If we don’t try to do good, love God and help others, what else is there to get done? Nothing nearly as worthwhile and fun, if you ask me.

Which leaves me with one last thing to write. I am now ready to go eat my taco. Comments?

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