Three Mistakes Followers Make and How They Hurt

Most people don’t like the term “follower,” so let me start by establishing that a follower is anyone who is led. Leaders, by definition, have followers. Followers, by definition, have leaders.

Most of the time, we are in both roles. The CEO of a bank who attends a church is a leader at work in terms of the bank’s management and a follower in relationship to the Board of Directors. That same CEO is a leader at church when serving on the church board and a follower in relation to the pastor’s shepherding. An elementary school teacher is a leader in the classroom, a follower in terms of the school’s administration and a follower in the church small group. You get the idea.

I am both a leader and follower at work, a leader when I preach and a follower of my pastor and small group leader, etc.

So the roles are fluid.

Based on research on leader behaviors and followers’ responses to those behaviors, I have written frequently about leadership and the mistakes leaders tend to make. With this post, I address the other side of the leader-follower equation: Three important mistakes we make as followers.

1. We too often associate trust with agreement.


At least intellectually, we know we won’t agree with everything our leaders do. However, when surveyed, leaders communicate the sense that as soon as they do something with which followers may not agree, the leader loses something. Whether that loss is in trust, cooperation or encouragement. It’s a loss nevertheless.

While no one is suggesting a blind faith in a leader, research indicates that most of the leaders in my life are worthy of my trust, even when they make decisions I wouldn’t make. If my followership is based on agreement with everything my leader does, that’s not trust.

If my leader thinks she’ll lose me, or a part of me, whenever she doesn’t do what I want, that’s not effective followership.

2. We aren't specific/explicit about our loyalty.


What’s the old saw? A wife tells her husband on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, “You never tell me you love me.” To which he responds, “I told you when I married you. If anything changes I’ll let you know.”

Followers say in survey after survey that we want our leaders to care about us, to be interested in our lives and in what we think. The best leaders at work, for instance, demonstrate care for those they lead in both a professional and personal sense.

Leaders desire the same thing from followers, yet we as followers are much more likely to think encouragement is simply assumed. “If I show up, assume I’m following you.”

Instead, followers should frequently vocalize explicit support and appreciation for leaders. We tend not to.

3. We mistake following with passivity.


The leader-follower relationship is just that – a relationship. As such it requires active engagement on both sides. Following is not a spectator sport. One leader said: “I don’t know whether it’s the busyness of our culture or my ineffectiveness as a leader, but it seems more and more difficult for people to invest their time in what we’re doing. To act.”

The 80/20 principle – originally posed in a different context by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto – predicts that 20% of the people in any congregation, Sunday School class or small group will do 80% of the work needed for the group’s effectiveness. That’s not a biblical principle, of course. But leaders see it frequently.

In the next few posts, I’ll try to unpack each of the three mistakes with more detail.


Managing Your Boss (Harvard Business Review Classics)

The Heart of Leadership: Becoming a Leader People Want to Follow (BK Business)

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable


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  1. […] In Part 1, I explained the term, “follower” and reviewed those three key mistakes. […]