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Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

“LEAD, FOLLOW, OR GET OUT OF THE WAY!”   – Thomas Paine, Father of the Revolution

I’ve loved this quote for years. It sums up the essence of life for me. We can be detached observers, or we can get involved and use our lives to make a difference, to riot against injustice and poverty and indifference and be agents of change. Vive la Revolution!

I want to be a revolutionary. Some days I am one. Some days … I’m not.

Not everyone is a leader, nor should they be, despite the determinations of certain leadership gurus. Ironically, if everyone were a leader, nothing would get done, because leadership requires vision, and the implementation of vision requires followers. Followers are people who put their hearts and lives into helping a leader bring their vision to pass, whether it’s running the country, getting a business off the ground, or building a strong, healthy church.

When one person gets a picture of what could be, what should be, the next thing that happens for the vision to become a reality is to influence others that the project is worthy of their time, focus, effort and passion. If that doesn’t happen, the vision will die in the womb. Many visions do.

The world has, maybe, 10 percent really great leaders. If they are great leaders with good hearts, stuff happens. If they are great leaders with bad hearts, stuff happens as well, but you’re sorry it did. A great leader is an effective leader whether their heart is good, bad or downright ugly. The chaotic and terrifying destruction of nations and their peoples happening right now on every corner of our beautiful planet is taking place because of great leaders influencing their followers to think what they’re doing is right.

Desmond Tutu said “My appeal to my fellow peacemakers is to step into the leadership void, to make your voices heard from all corners of the globe.” I want to add to what he said, because I don’t believe there is a leadership void. We’ve got plenty of leaders who are very effectively influencing their followers to murder, rape and destroy. The problem is the absence of leaders with good and courageous hearts, leaders who have the wellbeing of their followers and their nations, their churches, mosques, temples, families, economies, at the heart of how and why they influence. We’ve also got plenty of people who carry leadership titles, but they’re not leading constructively because of their arrogance, fear and short-sightedness.

Archbishop Tutu’s call is to peacemakers who will step into leadership roles to bring peace, literally make peace happen. The problem is that people confuse peacemaking with peacekeeping. Some people will do anything to avoid an argument. They capitulate to the pressure of toxic cultures, preferring not to rock the boat. That’s not peacemaking.

It takes courage to let yourself see something bigger, brighter, more wholesome and more holy. It takes courage to join those who are pursuing the construction of peace. It doesn’t take any courage at all to stand back and observe, but it helps if the observers stay out of the way.

You may be a leader. You may be a follower. You may be a leader who is following another leader. There are different strata of leadership, which mean that people able to lead groups of 10, 20, 50, can tuck neatly within the context of the larger visions of visionaries with greater leadership capacity. Most of us are not called to lead thousands, but we can be supporters of those who are. Mandela didn’t do it all alone but the whole evil system of apartheid was dismantled and destroyed because of his leadership and the followership of many great people. Steve Jobs wasn’t the only creative genius of Apple—there are many of them—but the culture of the world is entirely different because of the Apple Mac team, led by Jobs.

We are created to work together to see vision come to fruition. Collaboration is in our DNA. However you fit into the framework, one thing is vital. If you’re not leading or following, make sure you don’t block the road for the rest of us.

I’ve noticed that people who know the least about leading from personal experience are the ones most likely to criticise the ones who are leading. They also tend to be much more likely to despise the vision and, often, the visionary as well. When people can’t see beyond themselves, they are inclined to sit on the sidelines or worse, set themselves to make everything harder for those doing the work, and their petty jealousy too often influences others to do the same.

The truth is, nothing good happens without leadership. It takes a person with a vision to create something that changes lives. Over the years I’ve heard many people protest that we don’t need leaders, but I’ve never seen those people actually get up and make anything substantial happen.

It’s a lot easier to tell someone else how to lead than it is to actually lead. The world is full of advisers who are only too willing to say how the world, the church, the organisation should be run … but it’s rare that those bystanders are actually running anything. Like backseat drivers, they know what should be done, but they generally haven’t matured beyond the opinion stage, and therefore have no credibility in the leadership stakes.

Desmond Tutu’s call is a prophetic shout to every able-bodied person to get up and do something, be someone who will make the world different in a good way, being bringers of peace.

Leadership requires a certain forgetting of self. If you take too long in self-examination and self-depreciation, your opportunity to change the world will pass you by; it will move onto someone willing to take it by the horns and make it work. It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny sitting on a horse.  – Adlai E Stevenson II

Forget yourself and focus on what you feel called to do and why you want to do it. That will carry you past the quick sands of “what-if” and “I’m not adequate” and “what will people say” and straight through into the scary realms of “look mum, no hands.”

My husband Rick often says “leaders aren’t born, they’re cornered.” That’s one of the truest statements ever made about leading. You may never have felt a call to lead before God tapped you on the shoulder. I certainly didn’t. Forget about being perfect. You’ll never be that, but the world needs people of courage who will respond to the needs out there despite their own shortcomings.

Someone has to do it. Why not you?

This post originally appeared on SheLovesMagazine

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