The Dignity of Followership

W. T. S. Thackara

Last winter a long-time friend and I were driving through the snow-covered high-desert country of southern California, when in the casual flow of our conversation he made an unobtrusive observation about leadership which, unknown to him, later sparked some more thoughts on the subject.* He said that the people he knew who best embodied the leadership quality had all been servers.

*See Sunrise, "The Leadership of Service," August/September 1974.

In a similar, unconnected, and more recent conversation with him, he made another quiet remark that proved in retrospect to be an unexpected sequel and gave added perspective to this theme. He was describing how, in executive training conferences and elsewhere in business, key ideas are often used to illustrate certain practical principles. In this instance, he observed that a manager or executive who excels in his job does so because he has taken possession of the office. In other words, sitting in an executive chair does not automatically confer executive ability. The effective businessman or woman expends little effort advertising, reiterating, or attempting to negotiate from the position of title; but, instead, concentrates his or her attention and energy on discharging the responsibilities that the office calls for, actively and positively. Doing the job. Taking possession of the duty at hand.

I think this applies universally. No title, proclamation, or badge of authority invests anyone with a mantle which signifies the inner attitude or quality of a good leader. Genuine leadership has a charismatic fragrance which, like that of a flower, blooms from deep within the soul. All men possess this attribute in varying degrees of development, needing but soil, rain, and nurture to expand it into maturity. Whatever one's stewardship may be, whether of a company, of a home, or of oneself, the present circumstance is the needed soil in which growth may continue. The rain? This is said to come from sacrifice. Leadership, in its fundamental quality, grows in proportion to one's expanding concern for the welfare of others. And, finally, nurture. In assuming possession of the outer office, that is, in discharging the responsibilities met in everyday life to the best of one's ability, a person will find himself gradually taking command of his inner office, from which the essence of real leadership emanates.

Leadership and service. The best leaders are the best servers. We recognize this in others, we see it happen occasionally in ourselves. Still, there is a third element, really the third side or point to a triangular relationship — followership. By definition, any kind of leading automatically implies those who follow. Can we imagine a single living being in the universe that does not follow the lead of something or someone else, whether it be a person, an idea, a law, or whatever? In the natural order of the world there is a necessity for, and a dignity in, the office of followership. And on the human level, those who are in the position of leadership must also have proven their assumption of this other office, coequal in importance. For all men, no matter how high on the ladder of evolution, are learners, and therefore must have their teachers. It is not difficult to believe that even the greatest teachers have their teachers too. Presupposing a continuously infinite growth in evolution, logic at least impels us to such a belief.

Perhaps this is best summed up and illustrated in the lives of those teacher-leader-servers of mankind, followers of their own inner light, whose mystic nativities are commemorated during the sacred season of the winter solstice. For example, we find in the historical narrative of the Christmas story an allegory of the birth of spirit in man and its culmination a fortnight afterwards in the Epiphany or "shining forth." In theosophic interpretation, this refers to the successful blending of the human soul with its inner divinity which can then shed its illuminating light upon the upward pathway trodden by aspiring humanity.

In the art and sculpture of all lands, in all ages, the insignias of enlightened men and women have been the various auras, halos, nimbuses, crowns, coronas, and radiances we see emanating from the heads and hearts of these inspired individuals. Universally these representations mean that the individual so "clothed with the sun" has taken possession of, has assimilated "by strength," by force of his own effort, the office or kingdom of his inner god — "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30). Yet suppose we were to be alert for a truly enlightened person, and suppose we had the rare opportunity to come face to face with one. We might ask ourselves whether we would be fully aware of the fact — and by what insignia we would recognize this man or woman.

There is in this regard a very important point woven into the Christmas-Epiphany story that is usually overlooked. How many people living in that historical period knew of Jesus' birth? Who actually saw the star in the East? Who followed it? To whom among mankind was the epiphany of the christos-spirit manifested? The gospel tale indicates that, save Mary and Joseph, it was only the Magi who saw and came — those few wise men, kings and leaders of the spirit in their own right, whose minds and hearts so resonated in sympathy with the indwelling divinity of the newborn "infant" that they could see what was then shining forth. Like in quality recognizing like, however great or less they might have been in stature.

There is another, outer epiphany in the gospels, though it is not usual to refer to it as such. This is Jesus' epiphany to the people. After baptism in the River Jordan, and the successful conquest of his adversary in the wilderness, Jesus began his public ministry. Having proved possession of his inner nature, he was prepared to assume the responsibility of office entrusted to him. And by what insignia have people recognized this noble example of leadership over the last two thousand years? I think the various proclamations of his messiahship by books, organizations, and individuals have had little to do with it. Rather it has been the purity of his character, his acts of true charity and justice, his appeal to the selfless, loving side of human nature, his wisdom and insight into the hearts and minds of others, his altruism and compassion, and the universal tone of his message — the brotherhood of all beings. These shine forth, not only in Jesus' life and teachings, but in the lives of all men and women who are concerned with the welfare of their fellow man and are dedicated to the high task of service.

I doubt that a leader can effectively discharge the duties of his office unless there be some who recognize the quality and force, the epiphany, of that leadership. Who can lead without a call and mandate to office? Yet when such a recognition and following occurs, there surely must come with it some vision, however limited, of the job to be done. This truly is a type of partnership; but one that is real and viable only to the extent that the vision and dedication to achieving those goals are shared. How then might one recognize such an inner epiphany?

Although we may not yet have the eyes of the Magi, we do have ability to see that if we take possession of our own inner office — to become leaders of ourselves yet followers of the guiding star of our intuitions — then we shall have far less difficulty in discerning any quality of spiritual force which may shine forth at whatever time, in whatever age. In trying to conduct our lives according to the gentle urgings of our intuitions — the rain of soul wisdom said to emanate from the same source as every messianic and avataric impulse — we shall find that like will recognize like: a recognition that occurs in the unseen, ineffable union of hearts — a recognition which, in compassion and deep humility, links together an enduring and mighty brotherhood of spirit.

(From Sunrise magazine, January 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)

The true teacher defends his pupils against his own personal influence. He inspires self-trust. He guides their eyes from himself to the spirit that uickens him. He will have no disciple. — Amos Bronson Alcott

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