Most of us lead, but all of us follow. God has so structured authority in this world that almost all of us are leaders in some areas of life and followers in others. Parents lead their children while following government. Managers lead their teams while following the CEO. Directors lead their organization while following the Board. Few of us are without some responsibility toward leaders and some responsibility toward followers.
Following comes before leading. We are born under the first and fifth commandments, needing to give honor to God and our parents. Of course the fifth commandment points us beyond our parents to “preserving the honour, and performing the duties, belonging to every one in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals,” to borrow the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Long before any of us is in a position to lead, we must follow parents, teachers, elders, governments.
But as time goes on, as we begin our own families, as we discover our own vocations, as we gain abilities and responsibilities, we soon find ourselves in positions to not only follow, but also to lead. When we were young we only looked up the hierarchical ladder, but now we must look down it as well. When before we needed only to submit, now we must also lead. We become leading-followers and following-leaders.
There is a simple rule that can bring consistency between the way each of us responds to leadership and the way each us exercises leadership: Follow the way you want to be followed. I have often observed that some people demand unquestioning obedience of those who follow them, while they themselves dispute every decision of those who lead them. I have often observed that some people demand heart service of their followers while they pay mere lip service to their leaders. I have often observed that some people insist upon humble submission while they live in proud rebellion. The fact is, we train our followers by the way we follow. We teach them how they ought to follow us by the way we follow others. I am reminded of the words of Jesus who warned, “With the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” It’s a proverb that can be applied widely and should be considered by all who lead and follow. It’s a proverb that speaks to following those we respect and those we do not, those who make it easy to follow and those who make it difficult.
If we are going to follow in such a way that we parse every word and appeal to every loophole, we should expect our followers to parse our every word and to pursue every loophole. If we are going to follow formally, to go through the motions but with grumbling and complaining, we should expect our own followers to grumble, to complain, to do no more than the minimum. If we are going to follow the letter while ignoring the spirit, we should not be shocked when those we lead likewise follow the letter but violate the spirit. We are all natural imitators, so that the way we follow begins to look a lot like the way they follow.
When we speak of government, of their decrees, of their demands, of their expectations, we are training our employees how to speak of us, of our decrees, of our demands, of our expectations. When we obey the letter but ignore the intent of the boss’s instruction, we are inviting our team to be content with doing only and exactly what we ask even if they ignore what we intend. When we speak respectfully about our elders and the decisions they make on behalf of the church, we are teaching our children to speak respectfully about their parents and the decisions they make on behalf of the family, even when they may not fully agree with them. Our followers look a whole lot like our following.
Thus there is a call on those who lead to first master the art of following. Those who take on the responsibility of leadership should first prove themselves exemplary in our following. We should follow in such a way that if people imitate us, they themselves will be good followers. We should follow in exactly the same way we want to be followed.