Wednesday, November 08, 2006

COLUMN -- What it takes to be an effective follower: Independence, courage of conviction, loyalty and dynamic faith

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:29 AM |  

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

As I write this, sunrise voters are heading to the polls. No matter whom they select, we know they will cast their votes for "a leader." We know because the candidates told us so.

Every candidate claimed to be "a leader." Is it any wonder Congress can't get anything done, with 435 leaders in the House and another 100 leaders in the Senate? Or that the Minnesota Legislature exists in perpetual gridlock? The notion of a legislature of leaders raises the interesting twist on the old metaphysical conundrum — if a leader cuts a path through the forest and nobody follows, is he still leading?

No candidate ever won an election with the campaign slogan, "A strong follower." Yet logically, if not pragmatically, there must be more followers than leaders. Effective leadership requires effective followership. We do much to encourage leadership, too little to cultivate followership.

Of the many traits one might associate with a follower, four are essential to effective followership, which are, not coincidentally, traits one would expect in a leader — independence, courage of conviction, loyalty and dynamic faith.

Independence might seem a strange trait to associate with followership, but it is imperative; an effective follower is a follower by choice. He is neither an opportunist hitching his wagon to someone else's star, nor is he coerced into followership by the promise of reward for submission. One chooses to follow because he accepts that others are better suited to lead, but he never sacrifices his judgment to make that decision. He follows, but not blindly. The effective follower retains his independence and accepts the consequences of his choices — including his choice of leaders.

That segues to the second essential trait of an effective follower, courage of conviction. An effective follower is not attracted to the charismatic demagogue. He does not adapt the leader's convictions; he chooses his leader based on his own convictions. The one place effective followership breaks down more than any other is here: people looking to leaders to supply their beliefs instead of looking to leaders who live their beliefs. Effective followers do not line up behind a leader hoping he will point them in the right direction; they know where to go, but they look to the leader to help them get there.

But what if a leader straysfrom the principles that made him attractive to follow? The effective follower neither rejects nor accepts such a shift without first reconsidering his own position. Effective leaders challenge their followers — otherwise they wouldn't really be leading. Effective followers accept the challenge, but not an obligation to follow. Judgment and choice still come into play. If a leader has no convincing rationale for his change in course, loyalty demands that the effective follower challenge leadership and attempt to bring it back on course. The effective follower's first course of action is not to cut and run, not to revolt. The highest form of loyalty is challenging a leader to live up to the principles that earned him the right to lead.

And thus we come to the final essential trait of effective followership — dynamic faith. A dynamic faith is faith that constantly questions itself. It is a faith that always balances on the fine edge of its own destruction. It is not the blind but safe faith of partisanship. The effective follower freely chooses or rejects his leader based on his own convictions. His leader may fail him, but his convictions do not. While the partisan relies on his leader to provide him with direction and is lost if his leader fails (and thus never dares question leadership), the effective follower doesn't need a leader to show him right from wrong, good from evil or provide his reason for being. The effective follower may lose a leader, but he doesn't lose his direction. It is from the ranks of effective followers, not partisans, that new leaders arise.

The elections are past, we have voted and chosen our leaders. But our responsibility as citizens doesn't end with our votes. Whether we line up behind the elected or fall into step with leaders of the loyal opposition, we ought to still retain our independence, maintain the courage of our convictions, express our loyalty through honest disagreement, and persistently question those in whom we put our faith (before attacking those with whom we disagree). We must focus our faith on our principles, never trusting it to a single leader.

By voting, we made but one choice; we chose our leaders. We have a second choice to make — whether to trail after those leaders as blind partisans or support them as effective followers. And make no mistake — that is a choice, and the choice is ours.