I wrote this for OnIslam.net.
Lessons in Followership from the Companions – 1
“To become a leader, first you must learn to follow.”
These were the words from the Vice Principal of my school when my friends and I were caught breaking school rules many years ago.
They struck me enough for me to keep them written down all these years. Today, I’m able to explore that thought and understand the wisdom behind it, far better than the scruffy schoolgirl they were delivered to. Her gentle words from her position of leadership summarize the concept I’m about to expand on below.
If leadership is about providing direction and influencing action, then followership is the acceptance of that direction, finding and adjusting to one’s place in a team, and following through on what is expected.
The topic of leadership takes the stage frequently, while followership is taken for granted or not valued in relation to leadership. However, if not for effective followership, would the stage of leadership even stand?
Types of Followers
Different authors have contributed to the study of followership. Their classification of the types of followers is similar or overlapping.
Robert Kelley, for instance, classifies them as follows:
- Sheep: passive thinking and engagement; motivated by the leader rather than being self-motivated
- Yes-people: allow the leader to think and act for them; positive and side with the leader
- Alienated: think independently but do not contribute positively to the organisation;
- Pragmatics: minimal critical and independent thinking; motivated by maintaining things as they are; more willing to act when provided with a clear direction;
- Star followers: actively involved, with a positive spirit; critical thinkers; will wholeheartedly support any decision they believe to be sound; will openly challenge the leader about any decision they find to be weak and will provide alternative suggestions instead.
On a similar note, it was narrated that Abu Sa’eed Al-Khudri said, “The Messenger of Allah said, ‘The people of the highest degrees of Paradise will be seen by those beneath them as a rising star is seen on the horizon. Abu Bakr and Umar will be among them, and how blessed they are!’” [Sunan ibn Majah]
The hadith itself is graded as da’if (weak), but it is interesting to note the reference to the two men (may Allah be pleased with them) as stars, just like contemporary theory would classify such characters.
Ira Chaleff, another author, classifies his conclusions on followership into five styles, based on how well a person supports or challenges the leader:
- Resource style: low support; low challenge
- Individualist style: low support; high challenge; typically in opposition to the majority view
- Implementer style: high support; low challenge
- Partner style: high support; high challenge; sense of responsibility
Barbara Kellerman – a more recent author – labels her five groups as isolates, bystanders, participant, activist, and diehard.
Although the authors have different ways of arriving at these classifications, it is obvious at first glance that they bear the same underlying threads.
Navigating by the Stars
History leaves an appreciative reader with his jaw hanging, for it is unbelievable how rapidly and how deeply Islam spread even after the demise of the beloved Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him). Even with that strong leadership gone, the followers were able to take the message and run with it, so to speak.
The Companions of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him), henceforth referred to as the Sahabah (may Allah be pleased with them all), were models for all spheres of life – spiritual, personal, and social, for they learned and taught from the best of mankind himself.
The Sahabah (may Allah be pleased with them all) were very dedicated in obeying and imitating the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in every way, as far as possible.
We may have heard the following story of which there are various narrations. It is shared here just to make us think about where we stand as followers and the unexpected benefits that may arise from being an obedient and dedicated follower.
According to the story, during a battle between Muslims and non-Muslims, the Muslim leader checked to see if the army was leaving out any act of worship that may be preventing victory. At long last, he found that they were not observing the sunnah of miswak and ordered for the miswak sticks to be distributed amongst the soldiers so that they could resume this sunnah.
Being the obedient followers that they were, no one defied the leader nor questioned his reasoning even though we may wonder how miswak was going to save them against a reputable army.
Some narrations state that perhaps the sight of the Muslim army chewing twigs incited the fear in the opposition that they were in fact cannibals sharpening their teeth to consume the opposing army, and that perhaps this shook their confidence.
Examples from the life of these noble companions serve as pointers in the business as well as social contexts. Where we see effective followership today, we can most likely link it to the behavior of the Companions and where we see disparity and failed followership, we can most definitely draw lessons from these giants of the past.
Teams – whether they be small community centers or even governments – are going around in circles or falling apart because the members refuse to row in the same direction. Sometimes this is due to lack of competency, and at other times it is intentional, thereby causing mass chaos in the lives of an entire generation. We are led to question the use of the law – if it even exists – and the current validity of concepts like voting and election.
To be continued…