Why Can’t We Organize Even Two People?

Today was election day in New Orleans. I cast my first vote as a citizen of this city. On the ballot: the mayor, the sheriff, the coroner, the clerk of the criminal court, and the city council.

I attended a potluck with activist friends the night before. We had a frank and wide-ranging discussion about the politics of the city and our hopes for the future. One person in the group expressed her frustration with the difficulty of making change by asking, in a plaintive tongue-in-cheek, the question I have taken as the title of this post.

In most of my reflections on leadership and followership, I have taken for granted the existence of a leadership structure. What role does followership play in creating such a structure, when it is lacking?

Our potluck ended in a commitment by all present to continue our conversation in future potlucks. And we did.

Leadership and Followership: The Sermon

Here’s the most recent version of the sermon I first gave in 2001, in which my definition of followership appears:

SERMON: “Leadership and Followership”

Early in my ministry, I set myself to solve a problem I had in leading worship. It had to do with the silent meditation time. I think that that silence is important. Even if it’s just for a minute or so, that practice of sitting still together in silence is a healthy contrast to what many of our lives are mostly like these days. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of how good it feels and how much we need a little stillness and silence in our busy lives. Gathered here and uniting in silence, we can each turn that time to our own purpose and need, staying connected to one another by the act of holding that space of stillness for each other. Some may simply listen to the silence, some may enter a meditative state, some may pray. All of these uses of the silence are grounding and centering. And that’s all well and good.

So here’s what my problem was: I had to manage the time. How was I to do that? If I myself entered a meditative state, or got absorbed in prayer, I’d likely lose track of time and spoil the experience for the rest of you by making the time too short or too long or just unpredictable from week to week. I needed a way to time the silence without watching the clock – because not everybody closes their eyes during the silence, and nobody likes to see somebody in charge watching the clock! Ideally, I needed a way to time the silence that also helped me to be centered, allowed me to enter the silence with you in the same spirit.

My solution was to sing a hymn to myself –  silently, in my mind – as a kind of prayer for myself as worship leader. The one I settled on, which I sing to myself this way every time I lead worship, was our opening hymn this morning [“Though I May Speak With Bravest Fire”]. It’s a hymn that puts preaching and service in perspective and invites the Spirit of Love to guide and work among us. It’s a meditation that keeps me grounded vocationally, a fine thing to have memorized all these years, and when I sing it to myself in my mind we’re guaranteed a silence of about a minute and a half each time. Problem solved!

And solved in the best way for me. I needed that hymn as a regular spiritual practice. It has helped ground me not just during a silent time in worship, but in challenging times far from worship. That’s how the best practices work, spiritual or otherwise. By reminding ourselves regularly of the values by which we strive to live, by focusing our attention on them with a deliberate practice, we form the habit of thinking of them, and they spring to mind more readily and often – as if by themselves – in our daily living.

That’s the real power of prayer. That’s the value of ritual and of private spiritual practice. It’s the power of any discipline that helps us realize our full abilities to live our values and to become more whole and wholesome people, as individuals and as a religious community. Such disciplines help us achieve our best goals in life, keep our noblest vision before our eyes and alive within our hearts. They help us cultivate our strengths, and compensate for – or diminish – our weaknesses. They help us to appreciate and help one another, and to help our neighbors in the larger community. They help us do all this by calling our attention to our values, and by cultivating and strengthening our powers and habits of attention.

Good powers and habits of attention are fundamental to healthy relationships between people, and fundamental for building community. Because in order to know each other, in order to form bonds through mutual understanding and appreciation, we have to pay attention to one another. And there are two basic reasons why. One is that we all need to distinguish between our idea of another person and the reality of that person – we need to test our idea of someone for accuracy by paying attention. And the other reason is that people change. No matter how accurate our idea of someone is, it might be out of date.

Have I gotten your attention with all this talk about attention? Attention is no less important for the smooth and healthy functioning of organizations. Organizational leaders need to pay attention to the people they serve. John Buehrens, a former president of our denominational organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association, quotes one of his mentors as saying that “leadership is something we’re all capable of: it’s nothing more than having something left over, after taking care of yourself, to pay attention to someone else.” Sure, there are other skills that help. The ability to organize, the ability to charm, the ability to motivate people, and various other talents we may have, such as a facility with numbers or with words – all these help. But without attention – without cultivating our capacity to notice, to perceive accurately, to listen and really hear the depth of what is being said or see the significance of what is being done – without that, our other talents and abilities may be only fruitlessly or aimlessly applied.

We often speak of our church leaders and we list their names in our newsletters or orders of service, so you’ll know who they are and what they do in the church. But where there are leaders, there are also followers. If there are no followers, then the leaders are not leading! And they are not being supported. Leaders need followers, not just to fit the definition of leader, but to help and sustain them as they take up the weight of their responsibilities.

Just as there is a quality we call leadership, there is also a quality we may call followership. In order to cultivate either of these qualities in ourselves, we need to pay enough attention to one another to develop the trust and gain one another’s consent and help. In this way, leaders and followers together can create the conditions in which to “move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire must be put out,” as Marge Piercy put it.

We often speak about leadership, but followership is an unsung discipline. It needs to be named, I think. At the very least, we need to speak of followership to remind ourselves that leadership happens in a context of relationship, of trust and consent. If there are no followers, then the leaders are not leading, and they are not being supported.

Followership is a discipline of supporting leaders and helping them to lead well. It is not submission, but the wise and good care of leaders, done out of a sense of gratitude for their willingness to take on the responsibilities of leadership, and a sense of hope and faith in their abilities and potential. Good followership requires paying attention to those leaders: what are they trying to accomplish, what goal or purpose of the organization are they trying to serve? What skills do they bring, and what help are they asking for? What are their needs, and what skills can you offer to support their efforts?

Good followership also involves paying attention to oneself. “May I always keep tame that which rages within me,” Eusebius prayed. Have you ever had strong feelings about things that happen in the church? How have you channeled those feelings in constructive ways? How have you helped others to do so? Eusebius also prayed: “May I accustom myself to be gentle and never angry with others because of circumstances.” Things don’t always go the way we wish or the way we expect. The ability to roll gracefully with such upsets is a mark of a good follower.

When he wrote, “May I know good people and follow in their footsteps,” Eusebius prayed to have a discipline that both good leaders and good followers have. We can find mentors for leadership, and we can also find mentors for followership. There are good examples and good teachers all around, here among us, who can help us keep our balance as leaders and followers, and whose footsteps we can follow when we need a good pattern to go by. If we pay attention, we can find them and find the help we need to grow as leaders or as followers.

As a church community, we all must remember that, as Marge Piercy says, “the pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.” Work is real when we understand the value of it, when we understand that the work we do is benefitting someone. And leaders and followers alike must remember that “the thing worth doing, well done, has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” When we have common trust and consent – when we are paying attention to one another – we can grasp after that satisfying shape together, make plans that are clean and evident, work together in ways that are real.

In the first draft of our plans, in our first attempts to carry them out, we don’t always envision how to do well what we are trying to do. A plan or procedure can always be tweaked in progress and improved so that it is more satisfying and effective. When leaders and followers are working well together, with trust and proper attention to one another and to the task at hand, this is always possible, and it is always possible to shift our plans and procedures smoothly, moving in a common rhythm to make the change.

I began by talking about how spiritual disciplines call our attention to the values we strive to live by. Is there a spiritual discipline that a community can follow to cultivate the qualities of good leadership and good followership? Well, I have one to offer. It was developed by my colleague, Dennis Daniel, who calls it “Dennis’s Pretty Good Suggestion.” It consists of developing the habit – whenever we undertake any work for the church – to ask three questions:

• Who else needs to know?
• Whose turf is this?
• Who can I get to help?

These questions help us to communicate more fully and effectively (who else needs to know?), to consult a leader who might be affected by our plans (whose turf is this?), and to collaborate to get the job done (who can I get to help?). This spiritual discipline calls our attention to good habits of relating to one another. When we form good habits of relating to one another, habits of paying attention and understanding and appreciating one another, then we build trust amongst us and a culture of caring and mutual support is strengthened. Under these conditions we may free ourselves of old frustrations and keep forming better habits of leadership and followership.

• “Who else needs to know?” reminds us to communicate well.
• “Whose turf is this?” reminds us to consider the responsibilities taken up by others in the church, and to think how our plans might affect them.
• “Who can I get to help?” reminds us, first of all, that others can help and might want to; and secondly, it reminds us that we don’t have to go it alone.

In these ways we can get into the habit of supporting leaders and helping them to lead well, expressing our gratitude for their willingness to lead as well as our faith and hope in their abilities. In these ways we can tend to their needs as leaders in concrete and meaningful ways that are easily within our gift to give. May we strive to be such people, and may good followership be an appreciated skill among us. So may it be. Amen.

The Ghost of William Safire

I saw in a pastor’s column in an online church newsletter a statement that at first glance appeared to say I coined the word “followership.” And the ghost of William Safire rose up before me and said: “Time for full disclosure.”

I first heard the word “followership” from a Unitarian layman named John Lineweaver. John was an outspoken and sometimes mischievous fellow who liked to challenge others’ thinking. He was a big-hearted old sweetheart, too. I’m guessing it was in the mid-1990s when the lay leadership of our congregation (the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington, NY) were designing an in-house series of leadership development workshops. Everybody was talking about leadership. And John said, “We talk a lot about leadership, but there’s another crucial skill we should look at: followership.” He didn’t elaborate. I don’t know whether he coined the word or passed it on. But it stuck with me. I mentioned followership in a sermon in 1999 (delivered at West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Rocky River, OH), and then in 2001 (at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Riverside, CA) I preached a sermon titled “Leadership and Followership” in which my oft-quoted definition of followership first appeared. The idea didn’t quite catch then, and I laid it aside until 2007, when Ira Chaleff contacted me asking to quote my definition in his second book, The Art of Followership (2008). That prompted me to take another look at what I had said in that sermon, and I preached a new one that year titled “Courageous Followership,” after Ira’s first book, The Courageous Follower (1995). Notice that Ira’s first book appeared around the time I first heard the word “followership” from John. I would point William Safire’s heirs to that period for further etymological investigation.

The culture of the congregation that John and I belonged to placed strong emphasis on the notions of shared leadership and shared ministry. In the early 1990s the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Women and Religion Committee sponsored a study of shared ministry in which our congregation participated. To my mind the notion of followership is closely intertwined with the understanding that leadership and ministry are always shared.

During my parish internship I wrote a paper on the relationship between shared ministry and mission. Much of what I explored then also relates to the role of followership in achieving mission goals.

Well, I see by the smile on his shimmering countenance that the ghost of William Safire is satisfied. I have now done all I can to avert further erroneous attributions and to promote accurate ones. (God have mercy on us sinners.)

In The Christian Century? Really?

So one fine day in January 2012, I opened up Facebook to find a post on my wall from a colleague that said: “How fun to find you quoted in an article in The Christian Century!”

You can find Anthony Robinson’s article here.

Article summary: Leadership is hard work; it’s easier when there’s a clear shared mission or purpose to serve; it depends upon love and trust; it benefits from thoughtful feedback; and it works best when we respect each other’s roles. Good leaders and good followers act as partners, with those in one role enhancing and contributing to the growth and flourishing of the other.

The Unsung Skill Set

Followership is the discipline of supporting leaders and helping them to lead well. It is not submission, but the wise and good care of leaders, done out of a sense of gratitude for their willingness to take on the responsibilities of leadership, and a sense of hope and faith in their abilities and potential.

All leadership and all ministry is shared, because it is beyond the ability of any one of us to achieve excellence in all areas. Each of us can do our very best toward excellence in our own efforts; the excellence of the church is a group effort. In a church, love and trust are the foundation for worship, pastoral care and religious education. And on these three core ministries rest all that goes into achieving a clear shared mission and a healthy, transparent organization.

Worship is where we unite as a community to affirm the values we share that nurture and sustain us. Pastoral care is how we make our church community safe for one another, especially at our most vulnerable times. Religious education is where we learn skills to deepen our personal and communal spiritual lives.

When we are in the habit of supporting leaders and helping them to lead well, expressing our gratitude for their willingness to lead as well as our faith and hope in their abilities, we discover a deeper appreciation for these foundations. Community needs an investment of safe space, love and trust, good listening and friendship, and good leadership and followership.