One of the most prominent struggles when it comes to addressing the idea of followership is the notion of identity.
Our culture has persuaded us that being identified as a follower is a curse of resignation to the powers that be, locked into a doleful and unremarkable existence of conformity and lacking conviction.
In 2009, singer/band Bon Jovi released a song that would go on to be nominated for a Grammy. It is titled “We Weren’t Born to Follow” (lyrics; video). Ostensibly about “working people picking themselves up by their bootstraps in hard times,” reading the lyrics and viewing the music video imagery would seem to portray a more definitive viewpoint about the idea of following.
A few lines from the chorus reveal some of that perspective: “We weren’t born to follow / Come on and get up off your knees / When life is a bitter pill to swallow / You gotta hold on to what you believe.” Elsewhere, the song mentions that it’s about “anyone who does it differently” and that “this road was paved by the winds of change.”
The music video features Bon Jovi and the band singing on a rooftop interlaced with various scenes of historical figures and events, including Princess Diana, Martin Luther King Jr, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the bringing down of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, and various rallies related to climate change and gender rights (see Wikipedia list).
(You can view a full playlist of followership videos here.)
As I listen to the song, I can’t help but hear an appeal: be radical, be active, don’t settle. Lyrically, some of this is conveyed by contrast: followers are the ones who stay on their knees (in humiliation, desperation?) and let go of their beliefs when things get hard. Those who “mine for miracles” make something of themselves by sloughing off the bonds of following in order to overcome.
But visually, it’s interesting: alongside of the famous individual figures, there are a great number of mass events–composed of nameless, almost faceless, people who are engaging, participating.
Perhaps they are indeed doing it differently than some–but simultaneously, they are also going along with others, joining together with a crowd, bound under shared beliefs to bring about a desired outcome.
They are following. A leader. Other followers. A value. An ideal.
Rather than disparaging the idea of being “born to follow”, what we actually get is a depiction of the fullness of excellent followership. Remarkable achievement. Lives changed. Influence on policy and leaving a mark on creativity.
I might rename the song “we weren’t born to be idle.” We were created to engage, to live out our shared values in community. To labor for causes bigger than ourselves.
We were born to follow…and to follow well, with the fullness of our being and the application of our talents in realizing our perspective and collaborating with our fellow followers–not to be “livin’ in a fantasy”, and not necessarily to wait until “they call your name”, but to be fully present in this world and to be the agent of influence that you have been made to be.
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