Saturday, September 18, 2010

Learn to Follow; Learn to Lead

Note: This sermon was preached on September 14 and was the 2nd in the "Let it Be a Dance" series based on phrases from Ric Masten's song by that name.

It was the summer of 1963. Are you old enough to remember? That’s my cousin Ann with me in the bikini and her little sister Nancy in the picture on the wall. In addition to enjoying activities like swimming with my cousins at Cypress Lake, I was old enough to go to the dances held at the Pav-a-lon at the Recreation Center. No – I’m not mispronouncing “pavilion.” The name of this structure WAS “The Pav-a-lon” spelled P A V (dash) A (dash) L O N ” -- named, I suppose, by someone who could not pronounce pavilion – and it stuck. There was even a sign with the name at the entrance for a while – but it was stolen, I suppose, a while back. Anyway – back to the summer of ’63……

The dances were record hops, – with Ray Classens spinning the records LIVE on WWNS radio, 12:40 on your dial – while the teens danced the twist, or the mashed potato, as well as some slow dances. Tuesday night was for the younger teens and Friday night was for the older teens. So this was a Tuesday evening that I’m especially remembering. And I was very excited to be at the dance, sitting at one of the picnic tables with my gal friends, wondering if any of the boys would ask us to dance.

Then I saw that really cute guy who was in the class ahead of us. His name was Bill Hook – and he was so suave looking. I knew he probably would not want to dance with any of us “sub-freshmen” though – so I looked around to see if there were others – that I would at least approach if DJ Ray Classens gave us a “girls choice” dance.

Then it happened. The DJ put on a slow dance – and YES – Bill Hook came up and asked ME – “Plain Jane ME” to dance. I had seen Bill dancing earlier with another girl and he looked like he was a good dancer. And I knew I could dance because lots of the girls at the girls’ Happy Go Lucky club like to dance with me. So we should be good together.

We went out onto the dance floor and my heart beat rapidly. We started dancing and it seemed a little awkward – but I thought it was just my nerves, and maybe Bill just wasn’t that good of a dancer after all. Maybe he just LOOKED so good that I thought he could dance. Then he just stopped dancing – just stopped – right there on the dance floor and looked at me and said, “Jane – you are leading! I’m the boy – I’m supposed to lead! You are the girl. You are supposed to follow me.” Oh. OOPS! So I tried to follow Bill, I really did – but both of us were glad when the dance was over. And Bill Hook never asked me to dance again.

Now, I’m just going to put my feminist analysis of this situation (and all the possible sociological and cultural aspects that we could deconstruct) into an imaginary box here and tie that up and put it on a shelf – perhaps examining later. Because in reality – for that time and place – and with the rules in place for social dancing, Bill Hook was right! Yes, I had learned how to dance. And I had even learned how to lead, but I somehow had failed to learn to follow.

In Ric Masten’s song about life entitled, “Let it be a Dance,” he encourages us to “Learn to follow – Learn to Lead.” In the dance of life, it’s important to be able to do both.

There are situations in which I HAVE to follow – I can’t lead, because I don’t have the expertise or knowledge to do so. And most of us know what our limitations are – though we can work on those skills. For example, we are going to be painting the interior of our church soon, and our friend Gaby Howett, who is a professional painter extraordinaire, has volunteered to lead us in this venture. Now there are those of you who are skilled at this – and can more easily follow Gaby’s direction. And we will let you know when we need this help – so hopefully you can volunteer. I, myself, will probably offer the contribution of transporting people or materials – because I don’t know that I can even follow well enough in this arena to participate. But if I do try, I know that I will need to listen carefully, watch what she does, take it slowly till I gain confidence, and ask for help if I run into problems. Since that dance with Bill Hook, I’ve worked hard to learn to follow. And we do need good followers, don’t we?!

Now I know I need to follow Gaby’s leadership if I try to paint. But I also know that I need to step back and follow – even when I have some special knowledge or expertise. That’s hard for some of us who are extroverts, but it’s an important skill to learn.

But what about leading?

There have been mountains of research articles written on various paradigms or theories of leadership. And depending on who you are reading, these categories are given different names. This morning, I’m going to share some names for these categories that are commonly used across many fields and I’m going to be drawing and quoting from a 2008 article by Jing and Avery. I promise not to give you a long leadership lecture – this is just a little review of possibilities. (Note: Direct quotes are in italics.)

Classical leadership is probably the oldest paradigm with its origins in antiquity, and is still used in contemporary organizations…. According to Avery, classical leadership refers to dominance by a pre-eminent person or an ‘elite’ group of people. This leadership can either be coercive or benevolent or a mixture of both. In the religious world, the Pope is a good example of Classical leadership.

Under the transactional leadership paradigm, leaders adopt a consultative style for making decisions. They engage in different degrees of consultation with individual followers, but the leaders remain the final decision-makers. If you are in an academic department at Georgia Southern or some of job with a supervisor, your chair or supervisor hopefully consults with you on lots of matters – even if she has the authority to make the decision – or more than likely – the recommendation to the next level in the hierarchy.

Visionary (or transformational) Leadership has gotten much attention in the last few decades. Here, the leader (appears to have) high competence and a vision to achieve success. Followers… respond with enthusiasm and commitment…. The leader also consults with and empowers followers. A local Example that worked: Legendary Coach Erk Russell.

According to Avery, visionary leadership has limitations, even with the current literature’s overwhelmingly positive view of it…. The unrealistic expectations followers often place on visionary leaders can create disappointment if things do not work out. Also, followers can become dependent on visionary leaders, believing that the leader has everything under control.

Then there is Organic Leadership. Organic leadership allows for people with different degrees of expertise on current issues to emerge and be accepted by the group as leaders. In addition, under organic leadership, there may be no formal leaders and the interaction of all organizational members can act as a form of leadership, held together by a shared vision…. However, Kanter argued that the downside of organic leadership is that it… may result in loss of control and greatly increased uncertainty. A possible current example of this would be the Tea Party Movement.

So which of these works better? Well of course the research says: It depends!! One thing that it depends on for sure is the followers!

I was a department chair at Georgia Southern for 12 years. And for most of those years, I felt pretty good about what we were doing. The department started out with a small group of guys that were about to retire – so I had the opportunity to do lots of hiring as we replaced them and grew. My idea was to hire the smartest and best people that I could – then listen to them and advocate for them. And we were able to accomplish some great things. But the culture of Georgia Southern as a whole changed to one where that model didn’t fit too well. And eventually, I and some other chairs were called into the Provost’s office. We thought perhaps he wanted to hear out concerns. But no – he immediately let us know that was not the purpose of our visit with him. He told us that he brought us in so that he could explain to us what our job was. He told me that my job was – and I quote – “to take direction and give direction.” And just to make sure we got it – he said it two or three times. He added for good measure that we needed to learn that “the faculty is not always right.” Fortunately for me, I had already entered seminary and was on my way to preparing for the ministry. Because you see --- even if I COULD change my ways – and become that “overseer” and TAKE direction – then GIVE direction; I knew that with the faculty that we had hired in our department – there was NO WAY!!

Which of these leadership styles works best for our churches? UU churches with our governance of congregational polity -- go overboard with empowering folks – so it seems that no one can ever make any decision without some committee or board approving it. Growth Consultant Michael Durall warns us against following this path as he looks at the success of newly formed non-denominational churches and the decline of mainstream churches, including many Unitarian Universalist churches. In his book “The Almost Church,” Durall states:

Strong Leadership is the core issue that distinguishes newly formed independent congregations from established churches….. The question at hand is whether we limit the effectiveness of capable clergy, lay leaders, and church members via outdated practices, policies, and structures.

SO – though we don’t need the structure of the Pope – perhaps we don’t need the tea party either. Actually – one of the metaphors for leading and following that makes the most sense to me is the one that I often witness visiting and leaving our pond. The geese! Here are some facts and lessons from the geese compiled by former Baltimore Public School Superintendent, Robert McNeir. (

As each goose flaps its wings it creates an "uplift" for the birds that follow. By flying in a "V" formation, the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.

People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.

When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front of it.

If we have as much sense as a goose we stay in formation with those headed where we want to go. We are willing to accept their help and give our help to others.

When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies to the point position.

It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership. As with geese, people are interdependent on each other's skills, capabilities and unique arrangements of gifts, talents or resources.

The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. In groups where there is encouragement, the production is much greater. The power of encouragement (to stand by one's heart or core values and encourage the heart and core of others) is the quality of honking we seek.

When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then, they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock.

If we have as much sense as geese, we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.

I’m going to close this sermon by leading you in the chorus of a song by Amy Carol Webb. It can be our way of HONKING as we stand by each other, and lead and follow. The song is called “Stand.” And I invite you to stand in body or spirit. We can hum with Amy as she sings the verses and sing with her on the chorus.

I will stand with you! Will you stand with me?
And we will be the change that we hope to see,
in the name of love, in the name of peace,
Will you stand, will you stand with me?

When injustice raises up its fist,
and fights to stop us in our tracks.
We will rise, and as one resist.
No fear nor sorrow can turn us back!
(Repeat Chorus)

When pain and hatred churn up angry noise
and fight to drown out our freedom song,
we will rise, in one joyful voice
loud and clear and ever strong.
(Repeat Chorus)

When broken hearts come knocking on our doors,
lost and hungry, and so alone.
We will reach as we have reached before
for there is no stranger in this, our home.

I will stand with you! Will you stand with me?
And we will be the change that we hope to see,
in the name of love, in the name of peace,
Will you stand, will you stand with me?

Amen – and Blessed Be!

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