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On Following Mediocre Leaders

On Following Mediocre Leaders

We human beings have a strange relationship with leadership. We love it, but hate it. We crave it, but resent it. We long to be led, but contend with those who lead us. We witness this phenomenon in toddlers, in seniors, and in everyone between. As soon as we have the ability to shake our fists, and for as long as we have the ability to shake our fists, we shake them at those who lead us.

Our tendency is to assign the blame to the leaders themselves. The fact is, there are not a lot of great leaders. That’s true in the corridors of power, in the workplace, in the church, in the home. Just like, by definition, most of us are of average height and average intelligence, most of us are of average leadership ability. A few are brilliant, a few are awful, but most fall somewhere in the middle—average, adequate, mediocre.

The question each of us has to consider is this: How do we follow mediocre leaders? After all, we will spend much of our lives doing exactly that. While we may wish we’ll be called to follow the few who are great, the law of averages makes it far more likely we’ll be called to follow the many who are not-so-great. What to do?

Perhaps the place to begin is with admitting our own mediocrity. Just as we are all called to follow in some areas of life, we are called to lead in others. The harsh reality is that few of us lead as skillfully as we may think we do. Few of us lead as ably as we might wish. Our intentions may be good, but our abilities are not. Realistically, we ourselves often frustrate those who follow us. We often lead erratically, impulsively, selfishly, unsympathetically. It is, hopefully, a short step from reality to humility. If we lead with mediocrity, yet still demand to be followed, how can we expect so much more of those who lead us? We must grant the grace we want others to extend to us. We must follow others as we’d wish to be followed, not just through our brilliant decisions, but also through those that are difficult, debatable, or, in the final analysis, misguided.

From the humility of our own mediocrity we can consider God’s natural ordering of the world. Embedded in the Ten Commandments is a guide to the way God has ordered relationships. God holds ultimate, divine authority over all creatures, and we owe our first allegiance to him. But God delegates some of his authority to others. Standing between the commandments directed toward God and the commandments directed toward human beings we find these words: “Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”

God’s people have long understood that this, the fifth commandment, describes the basic structure for all human authority. Its scope is much wider than mere parents and children, but extends to all relationships that involve leading and following. The Westminster Larger Catechism, as just one formal and systematic example, explains that “the general scope of the fifth commandment is, the performance of those duties which we mutually owe in our several relations, as inferiors, superiors or equals.” It nicely elucidates the extent of father and mother. “By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.” The commandment begins with the most basic relationship of authority—children to parents—then extends to all others.

That being the case, what a child owes father and mother, is, in general, what an employee owes a boss, what a citizen owes a governor, what a member owes an elder: “All due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.”

God rules his world through the rule of others; he exercises his authority through the authority he delegates to human beings.

We must see and understand that it is not the skill of the leaders that gives them the right to call us to follow them. It’s not their ability. Not their track record. It’s their position. Their authority is intrinsic to their position. And where there is authority, there is to be submission; where there is leadership, there is to be “followership.” Why? Because this is how God orders his world. God rules his world through the rule of others; he exercises his authority through the authority he delegates to human beings. As Paul says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). We follow him by following them. That’s true whether they are brilliant leaders, bad leaders, or, more likely, just plain mediocre leaders. The exception clause the Bible offers is not to be exercised when we don’t like the way we are being led or when we are being led poorly, but only when we are being led in ways that contradict a higher authority.

The relationship of leading and following exists in this fallen world so falls under the banner of the futility that is experienced by all of creation. It’s not an easy thing to follow. It’s not an easy thing to follow a leader who doesn’t know how to lead with skill, with integrity, with excellence. Yet to resist authority, even authority exercised with mediocrity, is, in the words of scripture, to resist what God has appointed, and “those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:2). Thus we must follow leadership, whether it reflects excellence or mediocrity, for it is through humans leading and following other humans that God rules his world. It is through humans leading and following that God protects us from ourselves, for God’s ultimate judgment is, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). The only thing worse than mediocre or bad leadership is no leadership. If even tyranny is better than anarchy, then how much more so is well-intentioned mediocrity.

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