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Can a Leader Be a Follower?

04-18accountability

Weekly Impact is written for leaders by our Executive Director, Garth Jestley, who has decades of experience in senior leadership roles in the financial services sector. Each week he will share insights on life, leadership and faith.

According to one definition, a leader is someone who has followers. I suspect the person who came up with this definition was not thinking of celebrities who are followed on Twitter! For example, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber each have more than 90 million followers. Does this mean either is a great leader beyond their obvious ability to entertain those who follow them?

By contrast, marketplace leaders have real followers. For example, their employees and, in particular, their direct reports look to them for leadership. If they are good leaders, the company’s mission is much more likely to be accomplished. Effective leadership includes inspiring staff, delegating to staff and holding staff to account for results.

The foregoing assertions beg two questions. Can leaders be followers? If so, whom do they follow?

At first blush, a “follower leader” would appear to be an oxymoron! After all, if the leader ascribes to the philosophy that “the buck stops here,” one might conclude that leaders and followers are mutually exclusive roles.

This is particularly the case for CEOs. While they are accountable to boards of directors, their role is to lead the organization. The board does not want the CEO to ask it for operational direction. If they do, they are not CEOs and should be replaced!

Based upon the foregoing, marketplace leaders in general and CEOs in particular are not usually followers. If we wish to stretch the definition of follower, we might say that many good leaders follow the examples of other good leaders. This does not mean, however, that they actually follow them, since following in the true sense implies final accountability to the person we are following.

To truly be a follower, there must be accountability to the one we are following.

That said, marketplace leaders who have entrusted Jesus with their lives are actually called to be “follower leaders” accountable to Him. Their leadership is subordinate to their identity as children of God. As Jesus’ followers, they are called to place first priority on trusting and obeying Him in both their professional and personal lives.

In the Bible, Jesus invites everyone including marketplace leaders to become followers. On one occasion, a wealthy young leader asked Jesus what good things he needed to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus surprised him with His answer.

“…’If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” (Matthew 19:21-22)

Jesus’ reply does not mean that He is calling marketplace leaders to leave the marketplace and become pastors! He is simply calling everyone to accept His free invitation to follow Him in all aspects of life. From personal experience, this call will inevitably lead to uncomfortable choices from time to time. However, the joy of being in relationship with Jesus makes such discomfort worthwhile and, indeed, a privilege.

Garth Jestley is a husband, father, grandfather, leader and business executive. Most importantly, he is a follower of Jesus Christ.