I remember when my wife was diagnosed with coeliac disease. There was a little bit of a struggle to figure out how we would talk about it. Should she say, “I have coeliac disease” or instead, “I am coeliac”? (see my reflection here)
The basic question that was tugging at us was whether this is an object (something she may either possess or dispose of) or rather an aspect of identity, something that should be adopted and acknowledged as an essential or significant aspect of her personhood.
My own journey in followership raised a similar question.
As I relate in Chapter 5 of Embracing Followership, I recall encountering the words of another author who stated, “Leadership is a function. Followership is an identity.”
My initial reaction was to vomit up objection after objection, furiously scrawling my indignation onto the margins of that book.
What was I so opposed to?
Given that much of my early experience with the idea of following was fairly negative–with followers dismissed as sub-par people (compared to leaders)–I resented any such statement that would seem to condemn me for this potential aspect of who I am. Sure, maybe my current position at work wasn’t a leadership role, but I refused to permit myself being inherently degraded. I actually did some fairly interesting gymnastics with my job description and self-concept in order to convince myself that I really was a leader–just so that I could avoid the seemingly self-defeating attribution of being labeled a follower.
For me, there was a definite journey of embracing followership.
As I think about followership today, I find that it’s not either an object or an identity: it’s both. Being a follower is part of who I am. It describes much of my talents, calling, and experience.
But at the same time, excellent followership is also an object of my pursuits. It is something that I have not fully attained, something that I may possess more or less of, something which I may exhibit in one season and then perhaps (sadly) let fall by the wayside at another time. It requires investment, intentionality–it is not merely a simplistic overflow of who I am. There is skill, development, and growth involved.
In the end, we mostly refer to my wife’s condition by saying that she “has coeliac” disease. While it impacts our lives greatly, it was not always part of who she was and may not always be part of who she will be (we’re praying!).
For me, I am a follower. And, at the same time, excellent followership is something I have as a goal, an object that I hope to lay hold of and possess as an authentic part of both who I am and what I do. I hope that it both marks me as person and that it characterizes the nature of my contribution as a team member.
What once was merely a term of deprecation, is now an aspect of identity, a calling, a stewardship, a role, and a job.
At least for me. How about for you?
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