Thursday, December 15, 2005

Leadership Lesson #7: The First Thing a Leader Must Do to Get People to Follow

Robert Kennedy told the story of the fictional French general, probably based on the mercurial Charles de Gaulle, who betrayed his faulty idea of "leadership" one day. The general saw a group of people demonstrating. He looked at them and declared, "There go my people. I must follow them so that I may lead them."

One thing that pretender-leaders do is "follow the crowd." They try to figure out what everybody else likes and then live to please people. That's not leadership. While leaders must be sensitive to what people are thinking, the only leaders worthy of the title are those who can say, "This is where we need to go" and be willing to live with the possibility that they and their leadership will be rejected . (More on this in the next post of the series.)

So, if you're a leader, how do you get people to follow you? We've talked about some of the important elements of leadership in the first six installments of this series. But the only people who really are leaders are those who have followers. And here's how leaders get followers: They never ask those they lead to do anything more than they themselves are willing to do. The first thing leaders must do to get people to follow them is demonstrate a willingness to get their uniforms dirty. They are, as I indicated in an early post, servants.

When Jesus sent out seventy of His followers to preach, teach, and heal, He was asking them to do nothing more than He had been doing for several years. (Of course, in addition to Jesus' example, the seventy were empowered by God to do their three tasks. When they returned to Jesus after successful mission trips, they betrayed the mistaken belief that all the good they'd accomplished was from them and not Jesus. He had to spend the balance of His earthly ministry straightening them out on this point.)

Later, Jesus would ask His followers to "take up their crosses," the exact thing He did for the whole human race. How could you not follow a leader so willing to do precisely what He asked of you?

Leaders who are willing to do the things they ask of those they lead will earn both credibility and loyalty. In one of her books, business consultant and leadership guru Laurie Beth Jones tells of meeting a CEO at a post office. He was taking care of a mass mailing for his company, something that one of his subordinates might just as well have done. When Jones asked him about that, he explained that everybody else was extremely busy, the post office was on his way, and at that point, it was simple for him to take care of the task.

Of course, leaders must delegate. We've already talked about. But if you want people to follow your lead, you must be willing to do "the grunt work" that you ask others to do.

You'll notice a key word that's already appeared here several times: willing. There's a reason for that.

I was born with two left hands and all ten digits are thumbs. But a few years back, I wanted our congregation to get involved in Habitat for Humanity. So, I volunteered to work on a Habitat construction site on Saturdays and got a few of our folks to come along. A few of our members embraced this ministry with enthusiasm. But after several weeks, one of them approached me and said that while he appreciated my commitment, "We all have our gifts, Mark. Please don't come back here or you may end up getting killed." He could see that no matter how good my intentions, I wasn't made for contracting work.

You see, my willingness to participate in Habitat construction projects was enough for some of the people of my congregation to say, "I'll give it a rip, too."

One of the most poignant passages in Scripture appears in the Old Testament. Under David's leadership, a group of misfits and malcontents had become his "mighty men of war." They were encamped at the cave of Adullam, close to Bethlehem, where David's enemies were. David looked at Bethlehem and said wistfully, "O that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!"

It was a wish, not a request, still less an order. It would be like me saying, "I wish that I could have a pizza from Tommy's in Columbus." Or, "It would be nice to go to the Fiesta Bowl in January." In neither statement would I be requesting or ordering the things for which I wished.

But three of David's warriors heard the wistfulness in their leader's voice and set out, risking their lives, in order to draw some water from that well for him.

They brought the water to David, but the Bible says, "...he would not drink of it; he poured it out to the Lord, for he said, 'The Lord forbid that I should do this. Can I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?'" (Second Samuel 23:13-17)

For years, I couldn't read that passage without choking up. Even today, it's likelier than not to bring tears to my eyes. Why? David, a man the Bible describes as being "after God's heart," had earned his position of leadership because of his willingness to do nothing other than the very things he asked the people he led to do.

[Here are links to previous installments in this series:
The First Thing Every True Leader Must Be
The Most Overrated Attribute of Leaders
The First Thing Every Leader Must Do
The Inefficiency Every Leader Must Embrace to Be Successful
The Hardest Thing for Me to Do as a Leader
The Indispensable Habit of Every Great Leader]

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