Falling prey to bad leaders?

By Sam S. Rainer III

There is a romance of leadership. Most studies in leadership focus on the top roles. Many leader-centric approaches assume followers are mere recipients of leader-driven change. To romance leadership is to exaggerate its importance relative to followers. Leadership is extremely important, but it exists only because followers collectively interpret someone (or a group) in such a role. Romancing leadership leaves out half the relationship. Followers are just as important. Obsessing over leaders at the expense of followers leaves a gaping hole in understanding how leadership really works.

If followers have power and influence, then why might they fall prey to bad leaders? How can the leader-follower relationship break down? What makes followers susceptible to toxic leadership? It is followers who are more to blame than leaders. Allow me to share three ways this breakdown occurs.

Safety. In most situations, unfollowing a leader is almost as simple as the aptly named Twitter button. Most people are not locked into a leader. You can leave a church. You can transition out of a job. You can transfer schools. People can vote out politicians and strike against companies. Most followers in our culture have the freedom to walk away. But with every increase in freedom comes a corresponding decrease in safety. If you walk away from your job, then the paycheck is no longer guaranteed. If you vote out a politician, then you risk voting in one who is worse. In short, followers stick with bad leaders because they are not willing to risk safety in order to be free.

Belonging. Ditching a bad leader may mean leaving an important community. For instance, many followers remain loyal to a professional sports team despite an unscrupulous owner or ineffective coach. Loyalty is a powerful force within a community. Belonging in a human community will often supersede leaving a group leader. It’s why some churchgoers tolerate a fruitless pastor. It’s why cult followers do not denounce the cult after the leader falters catastrophically. Unfollowing a toxic leader is often more painful (and less important) than the sense of belonging that comes from the community over which the leader presides.

Comfort. Challenging bad leaders is uncomfortable (at best) and deadly (at worst), but many followers forget they have the power to challenge leaders. In fact, dual accountability is one of the keys to a successful leader-follower relationship. In order to challenge leaders, however, followers must let go of comfortable silence. If you are the only one to speak out, and no one joins you, then you’re left alone in a vulnerable and uncomfortable position. Many followers are not willing to risk comfort to challenge bad leaders.

A healthy leader-follower relationship is less about an exaggerated leader romance and more about dual accountability. Accountability is what prevents leaders from becoming dictators and tyrants. Followers need leaders to help guide them to better places. Leaders need followers in order to fulfill their purpose. The proper glue sticking followers with leaders is accountability, not safety, belonging, and comfort.

Sam S. Rainer III is the president of Rainer Research and senior pastor of First Baptist Church Murray, Murray, KY. [www.rainerresearch.com] [www.fbcmurray.org]

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