LEADERS AND FOLLOWERS: A Symbiotic Relationship


“The Miracle” is a movie about the 1980 USA Olympic hockey team’s win over the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War. I was one of the millions who watched the original—camped out in front of my television on that Friday night, sweating and cheering and chanting “USA, USA.” I will never forget the drama and exhilaration of that event. So I went to the cinema the other afternoon, knowing more or less what to expect. What I got was a sermon on leadership.

Herb Brooks had only a few months to mold a collection of ex-college athletes into a unit that could take on the mighty Soviets and put a stop to the constant humiliations they were inflicting on all comers. Brooks first raised eyebrows by cutting the superstars from the team. “Stars do not win championships,” he said. “Unity does. I want players with a passion for the game and a fierce loyalty to each other who will function on the ice like one man.” He drove them relentlessly and demanded superhuman effort. Most of the time, the players hated his guts. As they began to win games, they bought into the vision Brooks had cast. “The Miracle” is about many things—sports, patriotism, history—but mostly, it’s about leadership and followership.

John Grisham’s book “Bleachers” tells the story of Eddie Rake who coached a high school football team for 44 years, during which they won 13 state championships and earned a reputation as the powerhouse of state athletics. As Rake lies on his deathbed, former players return home to catch up and reminisce. Most of them despise the man for his brutal win-at-all costs tactics. Only after a young player died of heatstroke and Rake was fired, did the team learn to play the sport for love and not from fear. Leadership and followership come in all varieties.

Prophets Deborah and Barak composed a song of praise to God after an impressive victory over the Canaanites. The hymn begins:

    “That the leaders led in Israel,

    That the people volunteered,

    Bless the Lord.”

    (Judges 5:2)

Here is the perfect arrangement for every team, every church, every army: leaders leading, members working.

1. Leaders leading and members working results in the best of all possible combinations. It may not guarantee success, but it will never fail to bring out the best efforts of everyone and produce a sweet spirit of accomplishment. No coach wins the game alone, but no team wins without a good coach. It takes both. Each needs the other; each feeds off the other. A perfect symbiosis.

2. With neither leaders nor workers doing anything, apathy, stagnation, and hopelessness set in. Defeat and discouragement flourish. In the 8th and 6th centuries B.C., the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah called on God’s people to “break up the fallow ground.” Ask any farm boy. Fallow ground has lain untouched by the plow year after year, producing a hard crust and fine crop of weeds and briars. Such churches or teams may be safely considered dead and in serious need of resurrection.

3. When leaders lead but the people refuse to follow, both groups will grow frustrated. Leaders will eventually tire of leading a charge no one is making, and go home. The old joke says if you are leading and no one is following, you’re only taking a walk. But there’s nothing funny about it. Scores of pastors and coaches and managers know too well the frustration of trying to inspire people who will not budge. This accounts for the constant frustration in the life of Moses. (His story is told in Exodus and Numbers).

4. Sometimes, the people are willing but no one leads. Those charged with leading out—pastors, bosses, coaches, generals—are satisfied the way things are, while the membership chomps at the bit, eager to march. The team is ready to win games, the army to win battles, the church to win souls. But without leadership, confusion and division set in. Late in 1862, frustrated by General George McClellan’s unwillingness to engage the Confederates in battle, even though his army was superior in numbers, President Lincoln wrote him a letter of one sentence: “If you don’t want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for a while. Yours respectfully, A. Lincoln.”

The winning team douses its coach with Gatorade and totes him off the field. At the news conference, the coach calls it a team victory and gives credit lavishly to the players. That’s how total victories are achieved. Give a good coach recognition and a raise. Honor the water boy, the equipment manager, and the players. Each is incomplete without the other.

David and his army of 600 were in hot pursuit of a gang that had invaded the land, burning cities, capturing women and children, and taking valuables. When one-third of his men grew too tired to continue, David assigned them to stay and guard their supplies. A few days later on their return, the victors did not want to share the spoils. David’s response became the standard for generations to come in Israel. “For as his share is who goes down to the battle, so shall his share be who stays by the baggage. They shall share alike.” (I Samuel 30:24) Share the work, share the spoils.

“We who are many are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly…..” (Romans 12:5-6)

2 thoughts on “LEADERS AND FOLLOWERS: A Symbiotic Relationship

  1. It’s great and inspiring!! Thanks so much Joe. I wish you both the very best as you venture out in this new part of your journey. Love to you and Margaret and your family. Virginia Sykes

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