When the baton is passed

I have recently been reflecting on how hard it is to take over leadership from someone who has done well.  Think, for example, of the difficulties Manchester United has had since Sir Alex retired.  It can often be the same in churches or mission agencies following the tenure of a particularly significant leader.

While it will be a perfectly natural response to miss a much-loved leader, and wonder what will happen without them, or even have fears for the future, such feelings can easily become negative thoughts about their successor.  We can start to wonder if she is fit to follow in the footsteps of such a great saint.  Or possibly even resent every change that she makes even if it is for the better.  This then gets us into the habit of continually being cynical about her tenure.

So how can we be good team members at a time of transition?

1. We can recognize that transition destabilises us emotionally. We are crossing over from a place of certainty and we need to be aware of our own fragility which can make us overreact to even the smallest changes.  At times like these we need to focus on what has not changed, and this helps us through.  Other colleagues, friends, and of course God!

2. We remember that we support the team not the leader. After Sir Alex, retired, very few Man U fans will have stopped supporting the club.  In fact their subsequent disappointment and frustration are functions of their love for Man U!  Likewise we are in partnership with an organization, a family, a movement which is bigger than any one person.

3. We understand that any agency evolves over time as leadership passes from hand to hand. For some organisations that has been happening for decades, maybe even a century or more, and the agency still goes on.  Each new leader has the opportunity to shape the agency but it has weathered handover before and probably will again.

4. We can give the new leadership time. In fact we can empathise with them because no matter what our current role, we too were once rookies and had to learn the job from scratch.  We asked stupid questions and made silly mistakes which would embarrass us now if we remembered them.

5. We acknowledge that each new leader needs our support. When King David headed off a power grab by his ambitious son Adonijah (1 Kings 1) by publicly crowning Solomon instead, it was only the loyalty of brave people like Bathsheba, Nathan and Zadok that created a groundswell of popular support.  We have a choice – we can be a backstabber or a cheerleader.

Not everybody taking over the baton does well.  Sometimes they drop it, or get off to a slow start.  That’s not the time to lose faith in them.  They may be able to pick it up and carry on running.  If they do, it’s our cheers that will help them catch up.


The need for good followers

There has been much paper expended over the years on how to be a good leader, and it’s an important subject.  Without secure, conscientious, compassionate, visionary leaders, our churches and agencies can easily become stressed, fractured and ineffective.  But even the best leaders cannot lead an effective ministry without good followers, and since most of us are destined to remain followers rather than become leaders, it’s good to put some time into discovering how to be good followers rather working on developing leadership potential which may only end in frustration.

Being a good follower used to be equated with not rocking the boat, doing what you were told and not speaking out, but I suspect this definition was peddled by insecure leaders who interpreted every query as a challenge to their personal authority and slapped such ‘rebels’ down hard.  These days the leader/follower relationship is a lot more complex and subtle, with less power being wielded and mentoring and envisioning the order of the day.  So what key values do the followers need to develop in themselves in order to excel at it?

Serve leaders as God’s anointed people.  As mission workers, we often talk about working for God, but then don’t accept the people he appoints as our supervisors.  If they’re his representatives, we should honour them as such (Colossians 3:22-24).  Although that verse technically refers to slaves, it makes the point that inward obedience to those in authority is a godly attitude.

Don’t complain about the problem without being willing to be part of the solution.  We’ve all heard this before, but from a leader’s perspective it’s so much harder to work with someone who says “This isn’t working” than someone who says “I’ve got an idea for how this could work better.”  That person becomes a co-worker rather than a critic.

Following is not transactional.  Too many of us make our following conditional: we follow if we agree.  The Bible doesn’t make a case for blind obedience to godless or foolish commands (Daniel 6:10) but it does make it clear that we should obey and submit to leaders (Hebrews 13:7) and respect them (1 Thessalonians 5:12).  The minute we start thinking “I’ll be a good follower when he’s a good leader” we have stepped outside our God-given brief as followers

Being honest is not being rebellious, but the context and manner of our honesty can be.  There are inevitably going to be times when we disagree, but we can handle it well.  If you feel with all integrity you have a harsh challenge to make, do it in private like Nathan did to David (2 Samuel 12:7).  David’s response could have been ferocious, but he knew Nathan’s love and support for him despite the fierce rebuke.

Leaders need prayer.  It’s easy to believe we’d do a better job than our leaders, but how many of us actually help them to a better job?  Yet as the most prominent members of the community, they have to cope with pressure, demands and spiritual attack (2 Corinthians 11:27-29).  Praying for them helps them (1 Timothy 2:1-3).

Buy into a bigger vision than your own personal one.  If you’re going to be an effective follower, you sometimes have to subordinate your own plans to those of the leader.  For 40 years in the wilderness Caleb dreamed of owning the land he had seen when as a spy he had sneaked into Canaan, but he didn’t make a rush for it as soon as the invasion started.  He waited a further five years until the invasion was over before he asked for it.  He had helped secure other people’s inheritance before he gained his own. (Joshua 14:6-15)

If you have to leave, you leave alone.  There may come a time when it’s right to leave, but that doesn’t mean leading a rebellion.  When David had to leave Saul’s court for the sake of his life, he didn’t take his friends with him or make an announcement, he just quietly slipped away. (1 Samuel 19:11-18)

Much effort has gone into analysing the leadership style of Jesus, and devising universal rules of management from the results.  Yet the management gurus always overlook the fact that Jesus, too, was a follower.  The perceptive centurion observed that Jesus was a man ‘under authority’ (Matthew 8:9), and Jesus said he didn’t come to do his own will, but the will of ‘him who sent me’ (John 5:30).  He even said he didn’t speak on his own initiative (John 12:49).

The more closely we follow in the footsteps of the world’s greatest follower, the more we will become better followers of God, and the leaders he appoints over us.

In a future blog we will discuss how to act righteously when dealing with a destructive or manipulative leader.