"Don't be a "d--- sheep," my father told me this so early and often in my life that I thought the word "sheep" started with a "d." But I didn't miss the counsel that I should think for myself and not blindly follow what others, especially my peers, were doing. So I grew up without much appreciation for what it meant to be a follower – or for the value of good leaders.
When I started to study Christian Science and to probe the Bible more deeply, I gained an understanding of God as a shepherd who would care for and guide His sheep. One day I came across the definition of sheep in Mary Baker Eddy's book, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures": "Innocence; inoffensiveness; those who follow their leader" (p. 594).
This gave me a new insight into the role of sheep. Being a follower didn't seem so bad if it involved the qualities of innocence and inoffensiveness. I saw that my dad's counsel was against blindly following the wrong leader, as Jesus warned: "If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch."
Blindness, which can mean holding so firmly to our own opinions that we can't see others' perspectives, is not good in either a follower or a leader. And since we all have opportunities to be both followers and leaders, we need to know how and when to do both.
Doris Kearns Goodwin has written much about leaders and leadership. In her latest book, "Team of Rivals: The political genius of Abraham Lincoln," she sets out much of what makes a good leader.
In an interview Ms. Goodwin was asked, "What personal qualities made Lincoln such a successful leader?" She answered in part, "Lincoln had a quiet self-confidence that allowed him to surround himself by people better known than he was.... Lincoln also had the ability to absorb and listen well to what people were feeling and thinking. He could see both sides of the issue" (July 6, www.forbes.com).
When a situation cries out for good leadership, it also demands followers. It's obvious that humility is required to be a follower, but it takes even more humility to be an effective leader. Certainly it means dropping selfish ambition for the rewards of leadership and adopting the ambition to serve.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, great leaders such as Moses and the prophets frequently referred to themselves as servants of the Lord. This positive sense of servitude was instilled in Jesus from his early Jewish training, and he said plainly, "Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant" (Matt. 20:27).
Leadership involves being servant both to God and to our fellow human beings. In essence, the leadership role is far from being exalted above others. Mary Baker Eddy, the Leader of Christian Science, wrote, "The true leader of a true cause is the unacknowledged servant of mankind ("Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896," p. 266). Thinking of oneself as a servant instead of a master is essential to having faithful followers. When this attitude of serving is exhibited in a leader, his or her right to authority is upheld by divine law.
The ultimate goal for both leaders and followers, I believe, is to see God's kingdom come on earth and for us to find our direction to do God's will. While the journey may seem difficult, we can retain our inspiration by looking to the example of Jesus, the greatest leader of all time.
It is unfeigned love for both God and our fellow humans that makes a good leader, caring for the flock he or she is to guide. And the "sheep" find comfort as they follow their leader. Their innocence and freedom from taking or giving offense will save them from the wrong leadership, even as it saves the leaders from mistakes and failures. In scriptural terms, we are all taught (led) by God.
Adapted from www.spirituality.com.