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No leader is an island

Feb. 20, 2017 | by Allen Hamlin

Leadership is often a lonely endeavor, and our common rhythm of ministry practices may lead us into a false sense of self-sufficiency and unnecessary isolation. But giving into this tendency is a guarantee to ensuring that the other members of our congregation or ministry will never contribute their very best followership.

Displaying dependence

A surefire way to stifle excellent followership is to present ourselves as self-sufficient leaders who are independent of any real need of others’ contributions. All of the relational con­siderations outlined in previous chapters will be immediately swept away if we, as leaders, disavow dependence on others. If we don’t acknowledge the necessity of our followers’ skills, perspectives, and insights, we seriously hamper their ability to honor and respect us, and we certainly won’t encourage them to go above and beyond their basic obligations.

A healthy and productive leader-follower relationship requires a mutual flow of interaction rather than a one-sided demonstration of obedience and submissiveness. When a leader is truly working among his or her followers—no matter the differences in specific tasks—what follows is a sense of being bound to one another in a mutually beneficial, synergistic way. Keeping yourself detached and unavailable, behind a closed door, with an overfull calendar and an overflowing email inbox will only motivate your followers to figure out how to make things work without you. The unreachable boss [leader/pastor] soon becomes the unnecessary one, and while the team may yet continue to function, it will be deprived of the connections, resources, and perspective that its leader should be contributing.

Instead of detachment, demonstrate dependence. But how can you open yourself to a degree of input and relationship in way that doesn’t undercut your future ability to say hard things and make difficult de­cisions? How can you “be the boss,” and make calls that may not be well-received? If you reveal your weaknesses, your own “poverty” and consequent dependence on the abilities of others, will you lose the respect of your followers and your authority? Larry Hirschhorn asks the question this way: “If I ask questions that suggest I don’t know what I am talking about, will I lose the respect of my followers, or will they welcome my openness and my invitation to them to help me?”

Displaying dependence is risky. Relationships are risky, and exposing the truth of your interdependence on others can be challenging. Personality traits and cultural expectations will color the extent and the ways in which a leader can validate his or her dependence on subordinates. Revealing your reliance on others will be inappropriate in some situations, as in a large group or public forum. It may be wise to instead identify an individual or small group with which to share your needs and dependence. And at times you may need to communicate your areas of need as directives or assignments to others, assigning tasks that fill in your gaps. Doing so with integrity and authen­ticity may be a challenge, but I encourage you to acknowledge your needs and to avoid hiding behind your leadership title.

As with so much of the leader-follower dynamic, rela­tionship is central, and that may require us to reveal varying levels of dependence as our connections with others deepen. Having a foundation of trust—as well as loyal followers who are committed to honoring, respecting, and submitting to our leadership—is necessary for us to display dependence in a way that is well-received and leads to a positive outcome. However, even if the environment is not yet right for us to be vulnera­ble about our own state of “poverty,” it is essential that we do not deceive ourselves into thinking that we don’t need others’ support. Regardless of what our personality, culture, organi­zation, or roles may permit, at the very least we can be honest with ourselves about our lack of self-sufficiency and our need to rely on others. Once we face this truth, we can explore how to appropriately express this dependence, and—far more import­ant—solicit the involvement of others.

Excerpted and adapted fromEmbracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture, by Allen Hamlin Jr (Kirkdale Press, Feb 2016). 

Photo source: istock


Allen Hamlin
Allen Hamlin has served overseas since 2006, and provides team building consultation around the world. He currently lives in Wales, and oversees ministries in the southern UK. He is the author of Embracing Followership (Kirkdale Press; Feb 2016).

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