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The importance of followers

Strong leaders need strong followers, working together to advance God’s kingdom.

What characteristics does an individual need in order to be a good leader? Many believe an above-average intelligence, visionary thinking, or dynamic communication skills make a person a leader.

But there is one thing that every person needs to be a leader—followers. You cannot be a leader without them.

Not “just a follower”

It has been said that 80 percent of an organization’s success can be attributed to the followers not the leaders. If that is true, why do we spend so much time, effort, and resources to make more and better leaders? Dr. Robert Kelley, renowned author and professor, wrote decades ago, “Our preoccupation with leadership keeps us from considering the nature and importance of the follower” (Harvard Business Review, November 1988). It is time to devote some of that energy and resources to the followers’ development. Our churches can no longer rely on just called workers to get things done. It is time to train dedicated members, as well as the called workers, to embrace the follower role rather than just looking to create more leaders.

illustration of people making a cross

Think what would happen if we were to do away with the negative connotation and/or stereotype associated with being “just a follower.” Let’s stop believing everyone wants to be a leader. Let’s admit some individuals may not get involved for fear of being thrust into a leadership role they are not comfortable with. Stop overestimating the impact leaders have on an organization’s success. In a multiyear, multisite survey of college students on this topic, 60 percent of the students at one institution agreed with the statement that “leadership is more important than followership.” Almost 35 percent agreed that “followership is simply doing what is being told.” Is that what we are teaching our students? Is this not a common defense we hear: “I was just doing what I was told”? There is more to being a follower than doing what one is told.

What if we created a means to help individuals appreciate their God-given roles, both leaders and followers? Imagine the impact people could have if everyone focuses on enhancing the organization, no matter what the role. People will be more inclined to participate if they feel they are serving the mission and not just helping the leader. They will feel better if they are shown appreciation regardless of the role they hold.

Developing followers

Followership has been defined as “the process whereby an individual accepts the influence of others to accomplish a common goal” (Peter Northouse). The focus is on the goal, not serving the leader.

Focusing on the goal can be accomplished through a process known as developing H.U.M.B.L.E. followers.

  • Honest. All of us would probably say we have (or at least want) honest followers, but that may be less common than we think. According to a recent study by the Barna Group, 64 percent of adults and 83 percent of teenagers said truth depends on the circumstances. Those respondents believe there is no absolute truth that is applicable in all scenarios and cases. As Lutherans, we are blessed to know our eternal salvation rests on God’s Word alone, through faith alone, by grace alone. It is all done. There is nothing left to do. We should take this all-or-nothing mentality to ensure our followers speak the truth—even if it is not what we want to hear.
  • Unwavering. As mentioned above, the suffocating belief in moral relativism (right and wrong are left to an individual/group to decide) is prevalent in society today. In addition, the idea that one must be politically correct tends to stifle actions. It is so critical that our followers are taught not to waver. Of course, Christians must speak the truth in love, but if we do not encourage our followers to be unwavering, we may be sending the message that we do not hold absolute truths in high regard. We need to make this idea of being unwavering in our beliefs and convictions known and help our followers understand the devastating impact of relativism.
  • Mission-minded. Teaching our followers to be mission-minded in all they do is essential. Just like a company focuses its energy to carry out its mission, individuals, regardless of roles, should commit to carrying out their personal mission, doing the best they can in all they do “as working for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23). Dr. Kenneth Cherney Jr., a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wis., wrote, “A Christian in a ‘secular’ vocation will offer to God his diligence, his honesty, his cheerfulness, and an absolute commitment to quality in everything he does—and do it in the confidence that God is delighted with all of it, because God delights in him.”* Given today’s ministerial needs, the time has come to focus less on the differences between called and lay individuals and instead help followers gain greater joy in all their work by reinforcing this concept.
  • Bold. As Christians, being known as a follower is comforting. However, too often that is not how we want to be known as individuals, given some of the negative connotations associated with it. Teaching our followers to be bold in their ideas, communications, convictions, and in their ability to stand up and say, “I am not comfortable,” is critical. Recall the tragic result of the Challenger shuttle when a few engineers were not bold enough to stand up and say what they believed would happen if the launch continued in the freezing temperatures. Teaching our followers the importance of speaking up and showing them that we value their boldness will go a long way to developing a healthy, trustworthy relationship.
  • Learned. We all want our followers to be competent in their tasks, but we need to help them learn what it truly means to be a good follower. We teach them what to do, but how often do we teach them the importance of their role and the critical nature it plays? Do we show them appreciation for the task they have completed, but hesitate to celebrate honest communication, boldness in their position, and taking a mission-minded mentality? If these thoughts are seemingly new to you as a leader, imagine how they feel to less-experienced followers.
  • Emotionally intelligent. Individuals with high emotional intelligence (aka EQ) have the ability to perceive and express emotions, use them to facilitate thinking, understand and reason with emotions, and effectively manage their own emotions in relationships with others. EQ is critical in ministry. Teaching followers the gift of EQ will go a long way to the team’s relationship and those we serve.

No doubt, leadership training is important. We need good leaders. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans said, “If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously.” However, prior to that instruction, he wrote, “If your gift is serving others, serve them well” (Romans 12:7,8 New Living Translation).

Think of the eternal impact we can make if we stop focusing solely on building leaders and focus more on helping individuals be better followers.

View Donald Kudek’s entire presentation from the WELS National Conference on Lutheran Leadership at

*“Uncovering Our Calling: Luther’s Reformation Re-emphasis on Christian Vocation,” 2006.

Author: Dr. Donald Kudek
Volume 110, Number 6
Issue: June 2023

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This entry is part 4 of 16 in the series lutheran leadership

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