“Followership,” Tambuli, Jan. 1978, 6
This was the place he came to think, ponder, and pray. The president was silhouetted against the red sunset sky as he slowly rocked in the lawn chair. Seen from the back porch of the mission home, the sprawling city was beautiful, but he hardly noticed the view as he thought of the thousands who still ignorantly hungered for the truth.
With Elder Cardon’s release just two weeks away, the president would need a new assistant. Which of the 120 missionaries should he call? One by one, he considered each of the current zone leaders. As thoughts about one elder focused in his mind, he pondered, “In many ways, he is the most experienced and qualified of all my leaders. His zone follows him well, but he is also the source of many of my problems. Sometimes he sets out to accomplish a task (and does a good job), but never reports to me what he has done. I’m always being surprised and having to change plans. I ask him to do something and he never quite carries it out but does what he thinks should be done and tries to convince me that was what was really needed. I’ve discussed these things with him, but he does not seem willing to accept my judgment. No … I think I’d better present another name to the Lord.”
Too often, a talented leader falls short of his potential because of his weakness as a follower. After a time, that leader wonders why he seems never to be fully trusted and why his suggestions meet increasing resistance from his leaders. The ability to earn trust and influence from a servant’s position is an extremely important leadership skill, yet it is consistently overlooked in a leader’s training.
The scriptures contain many valuable lessons on how we can be more effective followers and gain the confidence of our leaders. The development of a great follower can be seen within a few exciting verses in the Book of Ether. When the brother of Jared is mentioned, we think of the strong, faithful, and powerful leader of the Jaredites. However, it appears that these great strengths were not merely bestowed but were developed over a period of time and were tempered by trial. Open your copy of the Book of Mormon to Ether, chapter 2, and start reading at verse 14 where it is recorded, “And it came to pass at the end of four years that the Lord came again unto the brother of Jared, and stood in a cloud and talked with him. And for the space of three hours did the Lord talk with the brother of Jared, and chastened him because he remembered not to call upon the name of the Lord.” [Ether 2:14]
There is a great contrast between the man who was reproved by the Lord for forgetting his prayers and the man of whom the Lord says in Ether, chapter 3, verse 9, “Never has man come before me with such exceeding faith as thou hast.” [Ether 3:9] What events in the life of the brother of Jared caused this great change and development? The few intervening verses record some very significant and important principles.
The great character of the brother of Jared becomes apparent, for after he was reproved by the Lord, he “repented of the evil which he had done, and did call upon the name of the Lord for his brethren who were with him.” (Ether 2:15.) This humble response to divine reproof is a sign of greatness.
He made one great decision that would help him become an effective leader by determining that he would follow the Lord by being absolutely obedient to him. The Lord then instructed the brother of Jared to build barges. He passed the test by following the instructions specifically. (See Ether 2:16–17.)
After the barges reached a certain point in the building process, a problem became apparent, so he went to the Lord and asked what to do: “O Lord, I have performed the work which thou hast commanded me, and I have made the barges according as thou hast directed me.
“… Behold, O Lord, wilt thou suffer that we shall cross this great water in darkness?” (Ether 2:18, 22.)
Certainly, the Lord’s infinite knowledge included many answers to that problem, but the Lord’s objective is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39), and so he was anxious to help develop the faith and the diligence of this willing servant. To do this, the Lord outlined some of the things that would not solve the problem and then left to the brother of Jared the responsibility of making a recommendation.
“What will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea?” (Ether 2:25.)
How long it took, or what the brother of Jared went through in making this decision, we do not know; the record merely states, “And it came to pass …” However, when he went to Mt. Shelem, he took 16 small stones that he had molten out of rock. Apparently, this creative recommendation was acceptable to the Lord, who touched them with his finger. It was during this great vision and experience that the Lord said, “Never has man come before me with such exceeding faith as thou hast.” (Ether 3:9.)
Let’s look at the steps that the brother of Jared went through in the process of becoming a great follower. First, he had to be willing to do what he was told, as exemplified in the building of the barges. Second, he indicated his willingness to progress and labor by asking the Lord for further light. Third, he accepted the responsibility to think through, work out, and make a recommendation to the Lord.
When a person has reached this point, he is ready to go forward and act on his own, making periodic reports. This is the valuable type of followership described in the 58th section of the Doctrine and Covenants where we are told to do many things of our own free will and choice that bring to pass righteousness. This is the level of followership that was used in the creation of the world where the work was done in seven creative periods with reports at the end of each period. The steps of effective followership are represented by the following graph:
Make recommendations; then act on them when they are approved (Ether 3:23, 25)
Ask for more guidance and offer more service (Ether 3:18)
Do what you are told (Ether 2:14)
Where are you as a follower? Are your leaders always trying to get you to do what you are told? Have you progressed to the point where you occasionally ask what to do beyond the bare minimums? Or have you even progressed further to where you try to see what is needed and then make recommendations? Or have you proceeded to where you are able to act on your own, periodically reporting?
It seems that these steps, like all things in the gospel, need to be learned line upon line. Often we get these steps upside down. We want to be able to act on our own, but we have not demonstrated our ability to do what we are told, we have not demonstrated our willingness to ask or listen, and we have not made many recommendations that are acceptable to our leader. To be able to act on our own, bringing periodic reports, is a level of followership that is reserved for those who have earned the trust of their leaders through performance. In order for a leader to allow a follower great freedom, he must first have confidence in the follower’s competence. The missionary previously mentioned did not develop these qualities. He did not follow directions and acted on his own without first gaining the trust of his leaders. He also failed to make reports.
The exciting story of Ammon and the sons of Mosiah teaches these same principles. After being converted and rejecting the offer of kingship, the sons of Mosiah were finally allowed to go on a mission to the “wicked and ferocious” Lamanites. Through humble prayer their father, Mosiah, had received a promise from the Lord that his sons would return to him. That they were worthy of this blessing is recorded in Alma, chapter 17, verses 2 and 3 [Alma 17:2–3], where it says:
“For they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God.
“But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore, they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with the power and authority of God.”
Here then are the sons of Mosiah, men of God, seeking because of love to take the word of God to a wicked and ferocious people. Afer they separated, Ammon came upon the land of King Lamoni. The scriptures record that the habit of the Lamanites was to capture stray Nephites and carry them before their king, and then according to his will and pleasure, they would be slain, retained in captivity, cast into prison, or cast out of the land as recorded in verse 20 [Alma 17:20]. This would indicate that the efforts of previous Nephites to come and convert the Lamanites had not been successful. When Ammon was carried before the king, he did not start immediately to preach to the king or to tell the king he had come to save him and his poor wicked and ferocious people. Ammon just asked if he could stay in the land. “Yea, I desire to dwell among this people for a time; yea, and perhaps until the day I die.” (Alma 17:23.) This was a different approach! Apparently, the king was much pleased and even offered Ammon one of his daughters to wife. Ammon did not offend, but quietly turned down the offer and said unto him, “Nay, but I will be thy servant.” (Alma 17:25.) This was interesting—a volunteer to be a servant when the local customs called for losers in battle to fill the servants’ ranks. Apparently, Ammon knew that he could lead this great nation most effectively from the position of a servant.
The scriptures record that after he had been in the service of the king three days, he went forth to the waters of Sebus. There, of course, he slew some and cut off the arms of others who would scatter the king’s flocks. The king was astonished when he heard this great story and apparently was further astonished when he learned that instead of coming to claim glory for his great act, Ammon was preparing the king’s chariot.
“When king Lamoni heard that Ammon was preparing his horses and his chariots, he was more astonished, because of the faithfulness of Ammon, saying: Surely, there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man; for even he doth remember all my commandments to execute them.” (Alma 18:10.)
Because of Ammon’s great ability as a follower, with the Spirit in the lead, he gained the confidence of the king. The king sent for Ammon and wanted to know about the source of his power and what made Ammon so unusual. It is here that Ammon’s ability to influence by service is clearly focused.
“Now Ammon being wise, yet harmless, he said unto Lamoni: “Wilt thou hearken unto my words, if I tell thee by what power I do these things? …
“And the king answered him, and said: Yea, I will believe all thy words.” (Alma 18:22–23. Italics added.)
Now Ammon was able to really influence. He had gained the confidence of the king, and the king would listen to him as he counseled and explained the gospel. Subsequently, King Lamoni’s household and a great majority of all the Lamanites were converted because of the missionary work of Ammon, his brother Aaron, and the other sons of Mosiah.
Would you like to have your leaders give you more freedom to act? Would you like to have your followers follow more effectively? As we liken these principles unto ourselves or do as Joseph Smith said, “govern ourselves” according to the correct principles, we learn that in the Church, a follower is obedient and prayerfully follows a leader even when he disagrees with him. Thus, the leader will learn the effects of his actions, gain confidence in his followers, and seek more advice and counsel.
This commitment to follow does have limits. You needn’t obey a leader who tells you to do anything contrary to gospel principles. You have within you the ability, through the power of the Holy Ghost, to discern what is right and what is not. You have the added knowledge that the voice of the prophet is the Lord speaking to his people in this day. In general conference, President Marion G. Romney said:
“Listening to [President Joseph Fielding Smith], I was taken back in my thoughts a quarter of a century ago to an experience I had with President Heber J. Grant. We were discussing some criticism that had been directed against an action taken by him in his official capacity. Putting his arm across my back and resting his hand on my left shoulder, he said, ‘My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he tells you to do something wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.’
“And then he added, ‘You don’t need to worry, however; the Lord will never let his spokesman lead his people astray.’
“I haven’t forgotten his counsel. I think I have been faithful to that charge ever since.” (Conference Report, Apr. 1972, p. 111.)
A good follower asks what to do and is willing to receive and listen to counsel and advice from his leaders. The brother of Jared was advised by Jared and the Lord, and the sons of Mosiah were advised by their father, and by Alma, and they followed this advice.
A good follower must be willing to accept responsibility and to make recommendations that will be accepted by the leader. This means that a follower must try to learn about his leader’s ways. He should try to anticipate the leader’s needs in a creative way and seek constantly to do the things that the leader needs to have done. A follower needs to act on his own and to bring to pass much righteousness of his own free will. This implies that the follower must understand true principles so that the things he does will bring to pass righteousness and not wickedness. Many young people in the Church have great leadership potential, but in many cases, it will not be realized because they will not first learn to follow. A great leader is first a great follower. Become a great follower. Do what you are told. Ask what to do and listen to counsel. Accept responsibility; make recommendations, carry them out, and bring to pass righteousness because of your own free will. There are no shortcuts to confidence or righteousness. We must be willing to take them a step at a time and walk before we run. We must follow before we lead.