In our Gospel reading today, Jesus likens himself to the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11-18). We cannot question Jesus’s valuation of Himself as a self-sacrificing shepherd. That is indeed who He is. But should we view ourselves as sheep?
Sheep are generally considered submissive. They follow where the shepherd leads them. Perhaps this is why few people aspire to become disciples of Jesus. Most of us want to become leaders like Him. We believe that leadership is our vocation.
A little reality check though: From a Christian perspective, our primary vocation is not leadership, but followership. When Jesus called His first disciples, He did not say: “Come and be leaders.” He said: “Come follow me” (Mt. 16:24).
Jesus himself, in fulfilling his mission, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being formed in the likeness of human beings, obediently accepting even death, death on the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Even St. Paul did not tell the first Christians to be leaders. He said: “Be imitators of me” or “Be my followers.”
Followership necessarily precedes and provides the foundation upon which we can build the insight, courage, and skills required of leaders. We become leaders by developing the virtues of a good follower. The expert must first be an apprentice; the master must first be a disciple.
If you read the biography of leaders, you will realize that they had to spend many years being subject to other leaders. Every Christian who aspires to become a leader must remember that if he is not faithful in little things, nobody will trust him with greater things (Luke 16:10).
Today, few people aspire to become followers. Ask a child what he wants to become in the future. No one will say: “I want to be a follower!” At an early age, children are taught that they must always aspire to be on top of the heap. Consequently, even in its most admirable aspects, followership has remained a closet phenomenon that few of us enthusiastically pursue or celebrate.
The mass media is obsessed with leaders. Reporters prefer to cover the activities of government and corporate leaders, relegating employees to the obscure alleys of organizational life. Ordinary citizens seldom receive attention from the media, except when they have accomplished an outstanding deed, or are victims of a terrible accident, a natural calamity, or heinous crimes.
How did we come to see followership as the antithesis of leadership? Perhaps it is due to our fixation on power. We often draw distinctions between leaders and followers along the lines of power and powerlessness. In truth, the quality that is most important for leaders, aside from integrity, is CREDIBILITY — the ability to elicit belief in another.
While power and positions may determine the pecking order in an organization, credibility remains the source of authentic AUTHORITY. A leader who has no authority to govern may use power to coerce his followers to obey, but he will never get their respect and allegiance.
It is about time that we examined our facile assumptions about leading, following, and how work gets done not only in the Church but more so, in government. We must build flexible networks of engaged and empowered followers who will operate on the basis of interdependence, instead of relying on a government inhabited by garrulous but inept leaders.