St. Louis

“Leaders without followers are just out for a walk,” a renowned expert on leadership development in the church told the annual Mid Council Leaders Gathering here Friday (October 13) evening. 

In an address entitled “Leading and Following,” the Rev. Ken McFayden – academic dean and professor of ministry and leadership development at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia – said, “We talk too much about leadership and not enough about followership. If there’s no followers, there’s no leader. If there’s no followership there’s no leadership.”

McFayden said he could count on one hand the number of people he’s been willing to follow in his life. “And those were built on relationships, not on what they said or did,” he added.

“Discipleship has to do with leading and following,” said McFayden, reiterating his thesis that relationship is the key to effective leadership and followership. “We need to give more attention to the relationship between leadership and followership.”

Noting that folk inside and outside the church keep talking about a leadership crisis, McFayden said, “It’s hard to envision how to be an effective leader if we’ve never been an effective follower. A leadership crisis is really a crisis in the relationships between leaders and followers, a lack of mutual empowerment.”

In a crisis, people tend to blame their leaders. “Often,” McFayden said, “it’s because in a crisis we tend to look for the wrong kind of leadership. We want to go back to the old ways that are more comfortable and known. But God is calling us to learn new ways.” 

God and culture call us to change, McFayden continued. “We’re looking for savior leaders so we don’t have to change. The church both yearns for and resists effective leadership, particularly leadership that is transformational in nature, because transformation requires change.”  

Others say they want entrepreneurial leaders,” McFayden said, “but we don’t really, because they take risks that demand the change we don’t want. We idolize the past because we don’t know how to deal with the present, much less the future. If we want real leaders, we have to give some things up.”

McFayden said leaders do not lead organizations, leaders lead people within organizations. “They are more attentive to the relationships.”

The issue of leadership and followership is more than anything a matter of trust, McFayden said.

“Whom can we trust? People with authenticity, with credibility, with heart, with passion for what they believe, with vision and with skills to pursue that vision, who understand that the essence of leadership is relationship.”

In such relationships, McFayden continued, citing J.M. Burns, “In the complexity of relationships between leaders and followers, sometimes leaders lead and sometimes followers lead. That’s the nature of mutual empowerment of leaders and followers.” 

Now is the time, McFayden concluded, “to focus on the quality of our relationships, on what it means to lead those who have chosen to follow, and on our ability to trust others, whether we are leading or following.”