Summary: Leadership and followship demand truth, grace, and sacrifice to be effective. A story-sermon, reworked from one originally done in 1999.
The desire to be “somebody” is deep within all of us. We want to be distinguished, we need to be acknowledged, we must be somebodies, not nobodies. That desire to be “somebody” can lead us to glorious accomplishment, or it can lead to the depths of degradation. It’s all in what motivates us. Do you want to be “somebody” because you feel so empty that you just have to break out of that insecurity? Or do you want to be “somebody” because that gives you a chance to contribute something positive to the world? The desire to be “somebody” produces a Hitler, a Stalin, or a Kim Jong Il; or it brings forth a Marie Curie, a Mother Teresa, or a George Washington Carver. People whom others follow and imitate.
I want to speak today to the twin issues of leadership and followship. What sort of leaders may we follow, and what sort of leaders can we be? When we choose to follow someone, how shall we judge whether that person is worthy? And when someone looks to us for leadership, by what standards are we to lead? There are profound issues.
Margaret and I had our granddaughters with us for an overnight stay this week. We noticed how often the just barely four-year-old imitated exactly the actions and words of her five-and-a-half-year-old sister. Leadership! But there are issues. As we took a walk, with the older one boldly leading the way, Jackie said to me, “Olivia always wants to lead. She says to me, ‘You lose’”. Can you hear resentment building, already? Leadership and followship – interesting issues.
For remember, the desire to be “somebody” is deep within all of us. We want to be distinguished, we need to be acknowledged, we must be somebodies, not nobodies. That desire to be “somebody” forces us to think about leadership.
When you were a child, did you play the game, “Follow the Leader?” You remember how it works. It’s very simple. One kid assumes leadership and begins to go places and do things, and all the others are expected to follow right along. The leader can make things boring and easy, or he can make them exciting and challenging. The kids who follow try to live up to the challenge as the leader takes them to more and more places they might not ordinarily go.
When I was a child, I too played “Follow the leader.” I learned a few things. Today I’m going to shave off fifty years – well, fifty-five – okay, then, sixty, in order to share some stories. This may be an unusual style of preaching. But the stories are all true life lessons, framed in the Bible’s admonition, “Remember your leaders.”
First, let’s consider that authentic leadership is based on truth. Let’s understand that if we are to lead, truth-telling is absolutely fundamental. Some lead based on lying; Hitler and Stalin and their sort freely lied to their people, and got a following, for a while. But real leadership, leadership that matters, is based on truth.
Remember what we’ve established: that the desire to be “somebody” is deep within all of us. We want to be distinguished, we need to be acknowledged, we must be somebodies, not nobodies. That desire to be “somebody” forces us to conclude that leaders worth following stay with truth and do not mislead.
My story: Larry told me about stamp collecting, and I decided to try it. Larry told me that the way you build your collection is to trade duplicates with other collectors. If he had two of the 12 cent Zachary Taylor presidential stamps, he’d be glad to let me have one of them if I had something he wanted, like maybe a the 13 cent Millard Fillmore in the same series. That seemed fair, and so Larry and I plunged happily into sorting out our duplicates and trading, stamp for stamp. After a while, however, Larry proposed another rule. He had an airmail stamp I wanted, so Larry said, “Look, this air mail stamp is twice the size of the regular stamps. So you have to give me two of yours if you want one of these.” Larry said it, Larry was older than I, Larry was really smart, I thought it must be right. And so that’s what we did for the rest of the afternoon. I got one, he got two; I got two, he got four; I got four, he got eight – until my little pile of stamps looked rather puny next to his, and we quit.
Well, guess what? I found out later that the value of a postage stamp has nothing to do with its size. I followed a leader who was not honest. This leader was deceptive. This leader did not base his leadership on truth, and I lost respect for Larry.