“You can’t lead others further than you yourself have come.”
TRUE OR FALSE?
Can you lead others further than you yourself have come? Can you? Are “the people” always limited by their leader’s vision, growth, intensity? We’ve all said this little phrase to prod leaders–especially pastors — to get their act together. The saying is a common truism. But is the truism true? Is it impossible to lead the people ahead of yourself? Are all churches limited to the level of their pastor?
First let’s say a word about further and farther. Most motivational speakers really mean to say farther not further when they use this saying. Farther refers to length of distance. Atlanta is farther North than Miami. On the other hand further means “to a greater degree” or “additionally” and has more to do with time or amount, which is why we give further study to an issue or we say the meeting should be I by now. Get it? (Hey, I teach at a liberal arts college.) But these two terms are relevant to our question.
Can you lead others farther than you yourself have come? and, Can you lead others further than you yourself have come?
Consider farther, first. Farther is about distance. If you are leading a group of ten teens on a hike you can’t lead them farther than you yourself have come. That is, if you are first in line, and you are hiking slowly, you start puffing and huffing then collapse on the ground soaked in sweat, with your eyes rolling back into your head as the teens mill about waiting for you to catch your breath… you can’t lead the group farther than you yourself have come. The teens are limited to the distance of the leader in front of the hike.
Farther uses walking or hiking as a metaphor for leadership. Leading to them is about getting more miles, dollars, numbers, distance. To them the leader is the one in front of the pack. The followers stay in line behind the leader. People who see leadership this way generally believe the “fastest walker” should lead–because to them leading is being out in front. They say things like, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” People using the farther model of leadership see the leader’s job as getting somewhere first and having others follow you there. They especially like Moses as their model and are always talking about “going up to the mountain to get a vision.” People with this model of leadership use this saying the most (though they almost always use further not farther, which they really mean.
But can the leader of the teen hike get one of the teens to take the lead? Can a leader lead from the middle of the teens? Or how about the leader that hikes “bringing up the rear” encouraging the slowest hikers in the back of the pack? Does this sort of “servant leadership” count as real leadership too? If so, then the statement is false– for you can lead others farther than you yourself have come–because sometimes a good leader lets others get up front.
So, how about further? Further means “to a greater degree” or “additionally” as in further study. It is not a walking metaphor but a “digging deeper” metaphor. Can you lead others further than you yourself have come? Can you get others to dig deeper than you yourself have dug? Can a leader get the people to go deeper, to go beyond, to do additional study, grow more, give more… than he or she?
You bet! In fact this might be the primary characteristic of truly great leaders. Not great people, mind you, but great leaders. Great people are remembered for their own greatness. Great leaders are remembered for the other leaders they produce. It is a decision all men or women with a “tinge of greatness” will have to make. Will you leverage your greatness to become greater still–or will you invest it to bring out greatness in others? Great leaders are always inspiring their followers to get better than they are. (This of course is the secret to good parenting.) So are these saying true or not? Can you lead others farther or further than you yourself have come? Perhaps we should say there is some truth in them. Like many proverbs they are true, but not invariably true. A leader can limit the vision, progress, growth and spiritual vitality of the people. So there is a correlation between a leader’s progress and the people’s progress. However, it is not a direct one to one correlation and it is not a rule. Sometimes great people blossom under average leaders. Sometimes great churches develop under very ordinary pastors. Sometimes the greatest local churches explode in a district or a denomination with rather mediocre leaders. Greatness doesn’t always trickle down.
But truly great leaders purposely try to get their followers to be greater then they are. Great leaders do not have to always be the best at everything. They don’t always have to lead the hike, get the microphone, get the most attention. They don’t even have to be the most holy person in the church, or the longest pray-er, or have the biggest vision. These servant leaders often see their role more like that of a coach than a quarterback. They know their team members can run, pass and block even better than they can. What they know how to do is develop the team. They see their calling as equipping the saints, not leading the hike. They see their job as developing a winning team, not dancing in the end zone. These kind of servant leaders latch on to people, help them find their gifts and calling, then launch them into the future–slingshotting them right past themselves. This kind of leader can promise their followers, “You will do even greater works than these.”
So both sayings are not always true. If you like the hike metaphor, the saying is only partly true, for you can lead others farther than you yourself have come–if you can learn to lead from the sidelines where the coaches are…or even from the back of the pack where the stragglers are. And if you like the deeper digging metaphor the saying is even less true, for a really great leader is constantly inspiring others to go deeper then they have gone.
But, of course, we will never understand leadership properly until we understand the church–the body of Christ–properly. For the body has only one head–and we who call ourselves “leaders” are really just coaches helping the team do what the Real Leader wants.
So what do you think?
© Keith Drury. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission.
2ProphetU is an online magazine/website, started by Warren Wiersbe and Michael Catt, to build up the church, seek revival, and encourage pastors.