How to Lead When You’re Not a Leader

Jun 23, 2022 | 0 comments

It’s rarely a good thing when the Church makes headlines. 

Unfortunately, at least in the US, we’ve been in the headlines a lot lately. 

Like many of you, these headlines have made me sad and angry – and sometimes a little cynical. I mean, what’s the point of training and developing leaders if leaders end up addicted to power and use that addiction to leverage more power, control, and supremacy over others? We have made idols of leaders and of the role of leadership itself. Leadership culture in the US church tends to toxicity, and we export said toxicity to the field. 

In many places, the fruit of leadership is rotten, resulting in abuse, immorality, and cover-ups. 

For most of my career, my work has been leadership development. I’ve questioned myself and my work of late. I don’t want to be a contributor to toxic leadership culture in the church and around the world. 

My question is this: 

How do we develop leaders who are Christ-like? 
Leaders who eschew power (Philippians 2:1-11) and lay down their lives (John 10:15)? 

I was on a prayer walk the other day, thinking and praying about this issue, when I stumbled over the obvious: 

Jesus says little to nothing about leaders in the Scripture. 
Jesus says a lot about followers. I mean A LOT!

John 12:24-25 sums up Jesus’ words about following well. 

Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls in the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must also follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be as well. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

Perhaps the world doesn’t need better leaders. 
Perhaps the world needs better followers. 

Leadership is not like the being a queen or king of Narnia. (Once a queen or king of Narnia, always a queen or king of Narnia). Leadership should not be a position attained and held forever. Leadership is a role that everybody plays in some season of life. 

High school days were drama days for me.

I don’t mean typical high school boy drama of girls, a position on the basketball team, and detention for spitballs (yes, my high school days were probably tame by most standards). I mean literal drama. 

I was a member of the National Thespian Honor Society. 
I was an actor.

The thing you learn quickly in the theater is the importance of roles. Every play has multiple roles. Some are major. Some are minor. Typically, one or two are “lead roles.” In a well-written play, all roles contribute to the story in important ways.

Great actors might play a lead role. 
Great actors might play a supporting role. 

This should be true of leaders as well. 

Leadership is not a position you achieve or a title you earn. Leadership is a role you play, as is followership. Sometimes you have a leading role. Sometimes you have a supporting role. Both are critical for every organization.

How to lead well by following well.

A trivial percentage of people become leaders of nations. Uncommonly few rise to high-level leadership in organizations. Most of us spend our lives as followers. 

“How do we follow well?” is a more relevant question than “how do we lead well?”

There is no shortage of advice and counsel for those who aspire to be effective leaders. But what about the rest of us? How do we play the role of follower in an effective and God-honoring way? You have more influence than you think. Practice leadership as a follower.

There are three ways you can lead by following, starting today. 

Let purpose guide your decision making

Understanding why you exist is a liberating discovery. This knowledge makes you a better follower because it helps you make better decisions, particularly about which leaders to follow.

Your purpose is the intersection of your passion and your service. It’s the point at which you will bring your highest contribution to your community. With clarity on your purpose, you now have a decision filter for every opportunity. Take the time to figure this out. The alignment of leaders and followers makes for a powerful organization. 

Manage your time, attention, and priorities

Great followers are good managers. Your most precious assets are time and attention. Take the time to set priorities and goals. Do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’ll do it. This means a basic understanding of time management skills. You should be able to organize your tasks and your priorities. It is difficult to lead or follow well when your inbox and social feeds dominate your life and work. Learn the habits of a better manager. 

Tell great stories

Cross-cultural workers should learn the skill of telling stories well. Stories are one of the most powerful tools of our work – and our influence. 

I learned this from my dad. 

He was a master at telling stories to us as children. I still remember his stories. I remember the lessons he taught with those stories. God wired our brains for story. 

Keep a story log. Learn the art of telling powerful stories. Story is the most subversive way of influence, which is what makes them effective. 

Sometimes we need a little help with clarity of purpose, managing life and work, and telling significant stories. Consider connecting with a coach. Even better, find a community where you can learn these habits and tools together. 

When an actor plays supporting roles well, they often move on to play lead roles. Followers who develop these habits set themselves up to play whatever role they’re asked and play it well. When asked to lead, they are less apt to fall in love with their own image and place themselves above and apart from followers. 

Influential leaders are not exceptional people. 

Influential leaders are regular folks who develop exceptional habits. 

Learn to lead well by following well. 

Even if you love your life on the field, you will not be given a pass on loss and grief. While everyone experiences loss on the field, not many have a manual on how to handle the loss you inevitably will experience. Until now. In this workshop we answer three key questions to handling the loss you encounter. Get the workshop here.

Photo by Cajeo Zhang on Unsplash

Bernie Anderson

Empowering next-generation leaders, business and non-profit consultant, writer, and speaker.




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