How to be a leader, not a follower comes naturally to some people, but to the majority of us, it seems easier to follow the crowd.
But research has shown that everyone can learn how to be a leader, not a follower, and use their influence, abilities, skills, and voice to impact the world in a positive way.
We may never be a CEO or President, but we can be a leader when it matters.
When I was in sixth grade, there was a small stream that ran behind my school. We were forbidden to walk by the stream because it was dangerous and isolated.
One day a friend suggested we walk home on the path beside the water. I knew it was wrong and didn’t really want to take that route, but followed the crowd.
Someone suggested it would be fun to walk through the water to get to the other side. Another bad idea.
Before I stepped into the chilly water, I tried to toss my shoes and mood ring across the stream. I watched helplessly as they plunged into the water, disappearing.
Why didn’t I speak up? Why is it so hard to go against the crowd? Why did I throw my shoes and favorite mood ring into the water?
It is hard for a 12-year-old to speak up and be a leader, not a follower but it’s not always easy for adults either.
Why do we do things that cost us because we are afraid to speak up or be different?
In order to be a leader, we have to feel strongly about our purpose and willing to stand alone. We have to be secure in our identity in Christ and willing to be rejected and face disapproval.
Wrestling with these deep convictions about ourselves can teach us how to be a leader, not a follower.
Why Do People Follow the Crowd?
Why do people follow the crowd? It’s just easier and causes less friction. When we follow the crowd, we validate each other and can get a lot done working in unity.
Sometimes following the crowd makes sense but other times we need to be the person willing to step up and lead.
Most of us struggle at times to lead and not follow the crowd. Even Jesus’ disciples struggled with how to be a leader, not a follower.
Prior to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples:
“Now Judas, who was betraying Him, knew the place because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas having obtained the Roman cohort and some officers from the high priest and the Pharisees came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.
Then Jesus, knowing all that was about to happen to him, went out and asked them, who is it you want? Jesus of Nazareth, they replied. Jesus said, “I am He”. …. They drew back and fell to the ground.”
John 18:2-6 AMP
In this story, a group of Jewish leaders led approximately 600 men to confront Jesus and a few disciples. They approached at night with weapons but fell to the ground when Jesus identified who he was and were awed by his deity.
It is safe to say most of these men feared Jesus’ power, knew of his miraculous works but still proceeded to follow the crowd, arrest Jesus and bring Him to trial.
The crowd proceeded to condemn Jesus to murder because He claimed to be the Son of God and was performing miracles on the Sabbath. They brought Him before Annas and Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priests and Pilate.
The “trial” was conducted at night which was against Jewish law. The Jews did not enter the Gentile’s room because it was unclean and they did not want to miss their Passover.
Here we see men who were scrupulous about following Jewish laws but in a crowd lost their convictions and openly disregarded laws that might thwart their desire to carry out judicial murder.
How did each man in this group make the decision to pursue and arrest Jesus? Even after witnessing healings, they continued with the arrest. Who was calling the shots for them? How much thought did they put into their actions or did they put their minds on cruise control? Were they afraid of the ramifications of being a leader and speaking out?
We probably won’t face this type of pressure, but we all have to make choices.
Ultimately why do people follow the crowd? We are afraid to stand alone and go against the tide of a group. Whether choosing a restaurant, letting our teenagers go somewhere, or participating in an activity we are uncomfortable with it takes courage to be a leader and not follow the crowd.
Can Everyone Be a Leader?
Can everyone be a leader? Studies show that everyone can be a leader. We are not all born natural leaders but we can be situational leaders.
Approximately only 10 percent of the population are natural leaders who take charge. The rest of us can be situational leaders in our corner of the world.
When we are called to lead in a certain situation, we can ask for advice but ultimately make a decision by standing strong and not getting caught up in what others think we should do.
Groupthink is a term coined by social psychologist Irving James in 1972. It occurs when a person makes faulty decisions because of a group’s pressure. It leads to a deterioration of moral judgment.
“Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people makes irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible.”
When we engage in groupthink, we ignore our own convictions to feel accepted and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize or discourage others.
We are particularly vulnerable when members are similar in background, insulated from outside opinions and there are no clear rules for decision making. Children are incredibly vulnerable to this type of thinking especially in high school and college, but many adults struggle too.
When my son was in elementary school, our family attended a school picnic. We noticed some of the boys gathered around a small hut in the park. As we approached, we noticed a homeless man sitting alone on the ground.
A group of boys began throwing sticks and stones at the shelter where he was seated and calling him a ‘hobo’. My son stood by looking tormented but did not throw anything and remained silent. When I asked him what made him not follow the crowd and engage in the harassment, he said, “I felt bad.”.
Not following the crowd that day was not easy for my young son, but the seeds of God’s love planted in his soul awakened his spirit and gave him the courage to know how to be a leader not a follower at that moment.
This is the root of how to be a leader, not a follower; a secure identity in Christ and a heart open to the Holy Spirit.
Everyone can be a leader when our desire to please God is stronger than our desire to please others.
“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.”
Romans 12:2 NLT
How to Be a Leader Not a Follower
No one is immune to poor choices, but we learn how to be a leader, not a follower by being independent thinkers, making independent choices even if they are not always the popular choices.
I had a friend whose daughter was a rule follower as a child and sought her mom’s advice and leading. When she hit the teenage years, she began making bad choices and experienced some life-changing consequences.
One day as we discussed her situation, my friend said, “we need to let our kids start to make their own choices so they can learn to fail, recover, adapt and ultimately lead and not follow the crowd.
Those wise words have stayed with me for many years and have helped me learn how to be a leader, not a follower, and pass tips onto others.
Here are 6 Helpful Truths:
Truth 1: Know your Identity in Christ
We must believe that we are wonderfully and uniquely made and loved by God. We must know our identity in Christ to become a Godly leader who is not afraid to step out when called.
“Believe God loves you and made you for His purpose. Believe you are not an accident. Believe you were made to last forever. Believe God has chosen you to have a relationship with Jesus, who died on the cross for you. Believe that no matter what you’ve done, God wants to forgive you.”
Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made, your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”
Psalm 139:14 NIV
Truth 2: Serve Others
When we serve others we grow in humility and generosity. We also grow in character and leadership abilities by serving others in different roles.
“Serve with a positive attitude, as to the Lord and not to men; knowing that whatever good each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord.“
Ephesians 6:7 TLV
Truth 3: Find your Purpose in Life
When my niece was a freshman in college, she was a great flutist and had an interest in a music degree, but decided against pursuing it. “A music degree would be a selfish choice for me; a life competing against people I admire would be difficult for me to do.”
Finding her purpose in life, led her to teach so that she could serve others. She figured out her purpose at a young age. When you find your purpose in life it breeds confidence and helps you be a leader.
“For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11 NIV
Truth 4: Become More Decisive
When making decisions we can pause, think, and pray. Fight the pressure to do something if you don’t feel at peace about the decision. Sometimes following the crowd is the best action, but other times we need to be a leader not a follower.
When we become more decisive we learn it means going in another direction and other times it means doing nothing.
When I was 14 years old our church group visited a lake. It was April and the water was still chilly but everyone decided to jump in the water. I thought about it (and probably remembered the outcome of the last water event) but decided I did not want to be wet and cold the whole way home.
I made an independent, deliberate decision and still remember that day because I was empowered and free to say no.
Truth 5: Learn from your Mistakes
Our mistakes help us adapt, adjust and grow. Mistakes also can drive us into a meekness, afraid to make a decision, but if we look at mistakes as learning opportunities we learn to be a leader not a follower.
A friend’s son was going to law school and recently dropped out. His parents were upset but decided to let him work out the decision even though it cost him and them. He sat out for a year and figured out he did not want to study law. He made a mistake but was allowed to figure it out and adjust for himself.
Truth 6: Be a Leader, Not a Follower
We can all step out in faith and start to be a leader not a follower in small situations. Any opportunity to lead, helps us gain confidence regardless of the size of the job. Our influence is needed at all levels of life.
“Sometimes we want to wait until everything is perfect before we start to do anything, but I have found that if we simply start where we are, with what we have, when we can, then God in His bigness is well able to compensate for any of our smallness.”
Examples of Godly Leaders in The Bible
The following examples of Godly leaders in the Bible are not people of fame, perfection, or natural-born leadership skills. They are imperfect people, just like us, who happen to pull away from the crowd to become a Godly leader.
Here are three examples of leaders in the Bible who were not in the limelight but had the courage to make a Godly decision and lead.
- Abraham’s servant Eliezer is a Godly leader in the Bible
Abraham commissioned his trusted servant, Eliezer, to travel and secure a wife for his son Isaac. Before approaching the village, Eliezer paused and prayed to God for wisdom in his decision.
“O Lord, God of my master, Abraham,” he prayed. “Please give me success today, and show unfailing love to my master, Abraham. See, I am standing here beside this spring, and the young women of the town are coming out to draw water. This is my request. I will ask one of them, ‘Please give me a drink from your jug.’ If she says, ‘Yes, have a drink, and I will water your camels, too!’—let her be the one you have selected as Isaac’s wife. This is how I will know that you have shown unfailing love to my master.”
Genesis 24:12-14 NLT
- Ruth is a Godly leader in the Bible
Ruth made the choice to leave her home and all she knew to follow her mother-in-law and set an example of leadership.
“Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said nothing more.”
Ruth 1:16-18 NLT
- Barnabas is a Godly leader in the Bible
Barnabas joins forces with Paul after his conversion to preach the good news about Jesus. Many were hesitant because Paul had once persecuted Jesus’ followers. Barnabas chooses to be a leader and makes the choice to speak up for Paul.
“When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to meet with the believers, but they were all afraid of him. They did not believe he had truly become a believer! Then Barnabas brought him to the apostles and told them how Saul had seen the Lord on the way to Damascus and how the Lord had spoken to Saul. He also told them that Saul had preached boldly in the name of Jesus in Damascus.”
Acts 9:26 NLT
What does the Bible say about being a leader?
Because Jesus calls us to serve others, it can lead to confusion on what does the Bible say about being a leader. But servanthood is not mutually exclusive from leadership.
We can learn how to be a leader, not a follower without sacrificing our ability to love and serve others.
“The scriptures do call Christians to follow. And those who claim to be followers of Christ are to serve others. I am simply suggesting that regardless of your spiritual position, as you mature, you will become a person of influence. Even Jesus said: “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men (Matthew 4:19).”
This means a mature follower of Christ will eventually become a leader of people. The Apostle Paul wrote: “Therefore, knowing the fear of God, we persuade men (II Corinthians 5:11).” In Genesis 1:26, we are told that we’ve been made in the image of God: “And let Us make man in our image.”
Have you ever thought about what that means? I am sure it means many things, but a hint to its meaning is provided in the next phrase of that passage: “And let him rule.” Part of what it means to be made in God’s image is that people have the capacity to lead and to rule. You will always be following and you will also be leading.”
Tim ElmoreThis post originally published on ButterflyLiving.org