These days I spend a reasonable bit of my time supporting leaders (and leadership teams) in a variety of faith-based charities and churches. That experience gives me an insight into just how brutal (and wounding) being in leadership often is. And that, tragically, includes leadership roles in the Church.
I am thinking about incredible and inspirational people who are doing all that they can in profoundly challenging circumstances to navigate through choppy waters. Their inboxes, however, are often full of toxic bile from those who claim to care. I admit to having been the recipient, although thankfully not too often, of such venom. It very nearly permanently broke me, and probably would have had it not be for the care of friends and family.
I am not aware of having done that to someone but I almost certainly have, inadvertently. If that is the case, then I am sorry. You deserved better.
The second reason for thinking about what it means to be a good follower is that during this year I have the privilege of serving as one of the chaplains to the Moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, Rt. Rev Sally Foster-Fulton. Along with Louise McClements, Sally’s other chaplain, we understand part of our role, as well as praying for and with Sally, is to follow her around, supporting her to be the best version of herself that she can be for the church and wider society. (And that, by the way, is very good!)
Having a “thin skin”, and therefore feeling hurt, pain and criticism, is vital to effective leadership. Thick skinned leaders, sooner or later, stop making the correct decisions because they stop hearing and feeling. If we want our leaders to remain sensitive that means that we need to treat them sensitively. Leadership is a vulnerable vocation, and despite what some of us may think, not everything would automatically be better if only we were in charge.
What might some of the components of “good followership” look like?
I am thinking about the person who sticks up for the leader when they are not in the room. The follower who does not join in the easy chorus of criticism. That doesn’t make them a “yes” person but helps us all to act with integrity.
I am thinking about the person who goes to see a leader after a meeting and talks through with them how they could have dealt with a difficult situation differently and perhaps more effectively. They don’t do that to criticise but to help the leader to be better. I am grateful to those who have had the courage to offer advice in that way to me. It wasn’t easy. I probably didn’t always accept it as graciously as I should have. But it was helpful. As a result, I’ve found similar courage to speak with leaders in some of the teams of which I’m a part.
I am thinking about the followers who help leaders to see things differently; and who offer them the capacity to change without feeling or looking humiliated. Again, I am grateful to those who have helped me to climb down graciously; and have not made me look totally stupid in the process.
Such change, of course, is dependent upon the leader’s ability to stop digging when they have got themselves into a hole. Having humility is vitally important to good leadership. By contrast, a humiliated leader can be incredibly damaging for leaders and followers alike.
One of the ways that we can create the possibility of having better leaders is by all of us committing ourselves to be kinder, more generous, and more rigorous followers.
This article first appeared in the July 2023 Issue of Life and Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland. Subscribe at https://www.lifeandwork.org/subscribe/subscribe.