History is the story of leaders. Civilization remembers events revolving around leadership. Any list of great leaders includes the malevolent as well as the benevolent, such as, Mohandas Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Adolf Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong, Jesus, Martin Luther, Bono, Joseph Smith, Jim Jones, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Martin Luther King, Jr., Julius Caesar, Saint Francis of Assisi, Walt Disney.
Some of these led governments, some led movements. Their personal qualities and methods are very diverse, but in all cases, they led ordinary people. So consider the question from the other side of leadership: What makes people follow? Leaders through the ages have found what works. They have found that there are two external means of motivating people to follow: scare them or mesmerize them. Both work remarkably well. Often leaders will use a combination of the two.
Fear-based leadership prevails throughout history, particularly in totalitarian regimes. The fear-based leader can use physical or emotional force to achieve compliance. Perhaps most political leaders through history have fit this category. This is the simplest kind of leadership. It suppresses the will of the follower. It thrives on uniformity. It says, “I am the leader because I can make you follow.”
On a rare occasion fear-based leadership can be healthy. Law enforcement officials may use a show of force to calm down a riotous crowd. Coaches may intimidate their players. Drill sergeants may threaten their soldiers. Such leadership can only be healthy in the short run and for a larger purpose.
Fear-based leadership works. It often generates a quick response; it takes very little explanation. It keeps followers together, at least outwardly—consider the abusive parent, the manipulative boss, the military dictator.
But at the same time, fear-based leadership only works as long as the leader holds the upper hand. Only through upheaval can the guard be changed. Fear does not bring out the best in people, but suppresses their dissent. Rarely does it persuade anyone. It is an external form of control. These leaders can only lead by using people.
Some leaders are blessed with magnetic, charismatic personalities. They can persuade and recruit. They find that people trust them and willingly follow them, for better or for worse. They bring people together at a deeper level than fear-based leaders. They unite followers around a common theme or goal. Many fear-based leaders begin by leading people whom they have mesmerized.
Personality-based leaders are persuasive and likeable. They are confident and present their cases well. They make people glad, but often without all the facts. People gladly get in line without scrutinizing the claims of the leader. The crowd includes a plethora of half-committed crowd-followers. The leader is more interested in gaining and maintaining control than he is in accomplishing the mission. Manipulation masquerades as leadership.
The personality-based leader identifies himself with the cause. Without the leader, there is no cause; no other leader can take the reins.
Intoxicated with the power of a following, this leader often becomes corrupt. The Jim Jones mass suicide was based on trust of the leader.
A Better Way: Mission-Based Leadership
Then there are leaders who inspire people to believe in the cause. This is mission-based leadership. The leader taps into convictions and beliefs of the followers and releases them to pursue the cause. Each follower then becomes an ambassador for the cause. The power of the movement comes from within each follower.
The cause is something higher, deeper, and more important than the leader. The leader merely taps into the pre-existing passion of the followers. He harnesses the power of the masses, as they pursue the mission together. This breeds not uniformity or conformity, but unity and creativity.
Movements are born under mission-based leadership. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired the faithful to action. They believed in their cause, not because of the leader’s authority, but because the leader had a higher authority. The civil rights movement grew because people fundamentally believed in the cause.
In a movement, people are persuaded and changed from within. The change is lasting and impacts society and culture.
People can be led externally with fear-based or personality-based leadership. Or people can be led internally with mission-based leadership.
External leadership is easy, internal leadership is hard.
External leadership is fast, internal leadership is slow.
External leadership is a sure thing, internal leadership is a risk.
External leadership leaves collateral damage, internal leadership builds up followers.
External leadership creates division, internal leadership creates unity.
External leadership inspires class warfare, internal leadership eliminates it.
Internal leadership can be blessed by God, external leadership cannot.
People follow because they fear the leader, they trust the leader, or they believe in the cause. Lasting, meaningful change comes from changed hearts, guided by the Holy Spirit. May our leadership be based on the mission.