Let's hear it for followership whatever that is

(10/1) I know right where I was when I first understood what the phrase "too many chiefs and not enough Indians" really meant. I was 18 and working a summer job in an auto parts store. Unloading trucks, stocking parts, doing odd jobs and such. The guy I worked with was a nice and peaceable sort of fellow who only got wrangled occasionally; and I could always see it coming. The words out of his mouth would be, "too many chiefs and not enough Indians." This told me to stay my distance. 

Over the course of the summer I learned what gave birth to his consternation and the phrase that accompanied it. His boss, the counter manager, would tell him to do something. As he went about his business the parts department manager would tell him to do it another way. To make things worse the owner would finally ask him why the "you know what" he was doing it that way and after explaining himself the owner would visit one or both offices of the other managers the end result of which was this poor sap getting chewed out by 1, 2 or occasionally 3 people. Those of us who worked there called these little episodes, "Christmas Packages." I also learned about irony that summer. 

The image in my mind was simple. Hoards of folks dressed to the hilt in colorful sheepskin, moccasins and feathers atop their heads and traveling down their backs, dancing and yelling while three or four lowly peons with one plume each in their bonnets standing off to the side looking at the "big chiefs" and thinking, "what are they doing?" 

Our culture teaches and encourages us to be leaders, not followers, and rewards us accordingly. I mean who gets the interview after the big game, the quarterback or the center? Yet the solution to the unbalanced pow-wow pictured above is simple. FOLLOWERSHIP! 

I suppose your first reaction to that statement is, "yea, that would be nice. Big Fish swims one way and all the small fry join in. But it just doesn't happen in the real world."  

Well, you're right and I know that but my concept of Followership is not about mindless masses blindly following the designated "big fish." Real followership is something that first is practiced by the leaders themselves. Lost you? Here's a story.

My wife and I were attending a retreat weekend. One of the fun activities for the group was splitting into small teams of 5 couples each and preparing a karaoke song to perform as a team before the entire group. (That's right Simon, there were judges too!) Our team couldn't seem to select a song. Everyone had a different song they wanted to do and a great winning way in which to do it. Seeing all these big chiefs dancing around I decided to be different. Plucking a few hundred feathers from my bonnet till I was down to one I finally spoke. Looking straight at a gal who seemed to have a lot of energy for her idea and a lot of frustration over not being heard I said, "you have an interesting vision there, can you say more about it." Suddenly every one was quiet. 

She then began explaining why her song was a good one and how we could do it effectively. People agreed. Off we went. And our group, though the competition was a bit tongue in cheek, got the most applause and had the most energy. How did that happen? Instead of competing with other leaders to get my idea accepted I boosted one of the leaders so an idea could gain momentum and the group could move forward.

Followers, real followers, don't just blindly go lock step behind the leader. They boost them into getting their idea out there. If the group doesn't like the idea the process can fall back to square one but if the leader once boosted can make a good case, everyone can get on board. 

Followership Rule One:

Be a booster. Give people with ideas a chance to get them heard and explained. 

I try to stay out of the grave yard of dead ideas. I mean who wants to wander through the gloom and stare at tombstones with inscriptions like "Here Lies Sixteen Track Tapes," "Sideways Bouffant Hairdo R.I.P." and "Life Liberty and the Pursuit of The Perfect Tea: Tasted Good But Died A Quick Death." The reason the aforementioned and so many others deserve to do RIP time is obvious but I wonder how many ideas have gone to the hereafter all too soon, without having had a chance to make their full contribution. 

What scourge of malicious illness could send so much well meaning energy to an early grave. The answer. Destructive Criticism. Ah yes, we know it well. "Our corporation doesn't use that supply line." "Our people won't like it." "Others aren't doing it, why should we?," "We've never done it that way before" and the coup de gras "what if......" You can fill in the blank on that one. 

Followership Rule Two:

Ask questions that encourage rather than challenge. Instead of forcing a person with an idea into a corner and a defensive posture, what about asking questions that enable an idea to be more clear, understandable and viable to those who are considering it? This is a tough one, granted. I'm not saying that a would be leader's ideas should be blithely endorsed out of hand, we need to scrutinize new ideas, particularly when they take us in new directions or cost lots of money. But if the attitude is more one of clarification than scrutiny, plot space in the graveyard of dead ideas wouldn't be filled so fast. 

Questions like, "what kind of benefits can we anticipate from this?" "have you thought of how many people may wish to be involved?" "how much time do you think it will take to implement?" are clarifying questions and are helpful. 

It's a matter of nuance. I can say, "we don't have enough people to do this!" or I can ask, "how many people do you think will need to take this on?" I can say, "people won't accept this!" or I can ask, "do we need a response to those who have a problem with this?" Not much difference in the phrasing between a question posed as destructive criticism and one posed as clarification but emotionally it's the world of gain and loss that lies between empowerment and rejection. 

Maybe this sounds good, but as with all things there is a catch. A catch that even with the best of efforts given to using rules 1 and 2 without which all will fail. The catch is what Rule Three addresses. 

Followership Rule Three:

Ask What Benefits All and Act Accordingly!

There's a town in the Netherlands that was having lots of trouble with traffic jams, accidents and even auto related deaths. After years of try and fail with conventional systems they tried a new and radical approach. Eliminate all traffic lights, signs and other traffic regulating devices. 

How crazy is that? What do you think the result was? Chaos, accidents, frayed tempers, angry tax payers...anarchy. NO! Quite the opposite. Traffic flow improved, accidents decreased and people were more happy with traveling around their town. How so? 

Before the change, the town educated those in the area of what was going on and told people simply that they were responsible for making traffic flow and safety in their city happen. This, they were told depended on two things: 1)paying attention to what was going on around them and 2)considering the needs of other drivers in addition to their own. 

At first people were terrified and in this lay the new system's success. Because people were afraid they were extra careful. And because they were extra careful they watched what was going on and gave attention to how they moved along in the traffic. Drivers stopped relying on what the signs gave them a right to do and paid attention to what the needs of everyone on the road counted on them to do.  

When this happened the average vehicle speed decreased but the average commute time decreased as well. How can that be? Well, when people slowed down and saw themselves as problem solvers working together, traffic flowed more efficiently. Everyone got there faster even though they were moving slower because (that's right) there was less stopping to wait for traffic to clear. Instead of a bunch of chiefs yelling at one another to yield, slow down, speed up, get in the right lane, etc. the picture is one of humble and cooperative Indians cooperatively giving and taking as needed to help everyone get to the pow-wow. Followership at its best! 

This last rule for followership that considers what is best for all is reflected in the leader/follower style of Jesus. Many times Jesus had to be the "big fish" leader and make pronouncements about what God wanted of his people. But as a close read of the gospels will show, Jesus also sought to empower his disciples with parables which questioned traditional understandings of things and statements which challenged folks to consider the needs of others. "Let the one who has not sinned cast the first stone," challenges offended people to forgive. But notice Jesus doesnít command them saying, "Forgive her!" Instead he validates their right to do what they want but consider what is just when he essentially says, "hey, if youíre perfect go ahead and punish someone else for being imperfect. But if you are imperfect and cast a stone, what does that say about you?"

Of course there is one time in the Gospel when Jesus gets very adamant about what his disciples must do and who is in charge. When he asks the disciples, "who am I?" and Peter declares, "you are the Messiah, the Christ!" Jesus unequivocally tells Peter to cease such evil declarations and get behind him. No way can such a slap down be construed as followership or even a leader encouraging followership in his disciples. So every once in awhile the chief has to be the chief and the buck must come to a halt. 

Of course, even in this extreme case look at what is at stake. What if Jesus says to Peter, "yeah, thatís right. Iím the big fish, the Messiah, so you all and everyone else on the planet have to snap in line." Well if he does that, first of all, he no longer sounds like the Jesus we know. But more importantly heís violating the whole notion of followership that is necessary in order for the kingdom of God to come about. Jesus preached about a world in which people boosted one another, communicated in helpful ways and considered the needs of others (gee, does this sound like something weíve been talking about here?). If he is hoisted on a throne and obedience is reduced to a "do what I say" existence then world order will be soon followed by a total collapse of the human spirit demonically stripped of freedom, meaningfulness, responsibility and initiative. 

Jesusí notion of a perfect world has nothing to do with locked steps but everything to do with washing one anotherís feet. Perhaps you remember the scene in Johnís gospel where he demands that the disciples allow him to wash their feet. He shows them that what is truly kingly in his kingdom is to humbly serve. 

When we boost the efforts of others, encourage them to clarify their vision and goals and through it all keep an eye out for what will serve and help the most folks we bring a "little Indian/ big heart" approach to a world that currently has too many "big chiefs." We bring a little heaven to earth and in the process do a lot of good. 

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