When I was younger, I spent quite a bit of time playing sports outdoors. My favorite activities always included team sports. The best part of being on a team, in my estimation, is that every team requires a captain. A team captain has the unique task of selecting the players and leading the group to the end goal (victory). I was quite far from being the best player, but I was known for being on the winning team. Someone else always ran faster, jumped higher, caught better and shot with more accuracy. However, in a team setting, I discovered something that positioned me above others — a key insight that made the difference between an ever-losing team and a seldom-losing team. In sports, some people are famous for “making other players better.”
My childhood hero, Michael Jordan, was an amazing player, but some sports commentators believed he would never win a championship because he seemed to lack the ability to follow another leader. In contrast, Magic Johnson was such a fantastic leader that he was able to shape fantastic followers — some of them ordinary players — into extraordinary stars. Years ago, on a middle school soccer field, I played friendly games of touch football with friends from my neighborhood. I was famous around the neighbor kids because it seemed like I could pick winning teams. It became a thing to watch my picks play, because I developed a skill that some attributed to a kind of intuition. To be honest, I did not have intuition. I knew my friends. I knew the people in my neighborhood. I knew Chuck could catch 10-yard passes but would fumble a single-yard toss. I knew Darin could sprint down a court but wouldn’t make the layup, so Andy needed to be around to respond to the assist.
By the time he retired, Michael Jordan had led the Bulls to their greatest success during my formative years, the 1990s. The Bulls are known for having one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties, winning six championships between 1991 and 1998 with two three-peats. All six championship teams were led by coach Phil Jackson. What made the difference between Jordan’s initial inability to win a championship and the Hall of Fame?
It all recalibrated in 1991, late in Game 5 of the NBA Finals at the Forum in Inglewood, California. The Bulls were ahead and clinging to a fragile lead in the series. At a crucial timeout, Jackson pulled Jordan aside and said, “Michael, who’s open?” Michael wouldn’t answer. Jackson asked again, “Michael, who’s open?” Finally, Jordan responded: “Pax.” John Paxson was always open when Jordan was on the court. Paxson was a deadly shooter when no one was around, and Jordan could see to it that no one was covering him by drawing the opposing team away. After all, everyone followed the leader, and Jordan was the perceived leader. Jordan passed the ball over and over to Paxson who, in turn, nailed a series of buckets leading the Bulls to the first of their NBA championships.
Teamwork and Ability
Enough basketball. It’s time we understand the importance of assembling teams, not simply on the basis of skill, but also on the basis of teamwork and ability to add what the group needs most. Good players mesh; personalities — not merely abilities — matter. The problem is we often misplace how consistent people are across the various “playing fields.” If someone is lazy around the house, we might assume they are also lazy at work. If someone is easily distracted in school, we assume they will also be distracted at work. In many cases, this type of cross-situational behavior consistency does not apply. Most of us are a lot less consistent in different situations than we think we are.
This goes in spades when relying on our beliefs of how someone might behave based on our perception of their behavioral patterns. Replying on these false beliefs of behavioral consistency and predictability is a major mistake when trying to determine and understand the capacity of those followers around you and their ability to lead. I still remember seeing the look of shock when a co-worker’s spouse was informed (by a new colleague) that her husband is very organized. She could not imagine her husband demonstrating organizational skills and, thus, leading with excellence.
For identifiable reasons, groups often perform poorly. In some cases, groups do not merely fail to correct the errors of their members; they actually amplify those errors. I still remember my first failed group project in college. I was in a communications class led by an adjunct professor who did things a little differently. He tasked the class with one single assignment: Use a single creative avenue to deliver and communicate the message of good news. Groups were discouraged but not prohibited. Students were not graded on attendance, but attendance was important to check in with the professor and develop the assignment. The class met for three hours on Tuesday nights and lasted 13 weeks.
On the final day, we presented our project and received a grade. Metrics were set so we could bounce ideas, receive feedback and ensure we would not miss the mark come the end of the semester. I chose to work in a group with two peers. We decided to create a series of videos telling the story of Jesus throughout the Gospels. The project was a total disaster. Despite meeting multiple times per week halfway through the semester to work on the project, I knew we were not going to make it. Strategies changed every week. We couldn’t agree on the content. We had no idea where we wanted to go. Our overall grade was in jeopardy. Something needed to be done if we would pull through as a team. In the end, we did not all pass the class. The project was a huge developmental opportunity from which I drew many valuable experiences. In fact, I work with that adjunct professor to this day, and, at times, he has contractually worked under my lead.
Riding Life’s Pathway
“The Lord says, ‘I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you’” (Psalm 32:8 NLT).
Life includes moments that define how a person will behave in the future. I was a little boy when I first learned to ride a bicycle, but, in my mid-20s, I learned to ride a downhill mountain bike. Both types of riding require a keen tuning of motor skills, but, downhill riding also requires another set of habits and instincts. I’ll never forget the pain (physical and emotional) and the frustration of falling off a bicycle as a grown, married adult man with children. I needed to change the way I used my legs, hands, lungs and eyes. If success was in my future as a mountain biker, I needed to renew my skills as a cyclist in a different set of elements and challenges. I never really understood how to do it until I sought help from an experienced friend who said to me, “Jay, you will only go as far (without falling) as your eyes will take you.”
I didn’t seem to understand what that meant right away. It’s much easier to say it than to do it. What you need to do is look significantly ahead because where you look is where you will go. My brother-in-law Jeremy seemed to get this better than I did so I sent him ahead of me. This strategy gave me the advantage to follow a leader who understood the concept better than I did. All I needed to do was to follow someone who knew where to go! It reminds me a bit of the different people Jesus called to follow him. I love reading the various questions Jesus received from individuals or crowds. One time, the crowd asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” (John 6:28). When I don’t know what to do next, I often think about what God called me to do last. This thought process will give me at least a framework to begin seeking a new direction after I have arrived at my last destination. The question seems like a valid one: “What must we do to do the works God requires?” “What do we do?” “Who do we follow?”
A Guide for Change
Leading through change is not easy. A framework should be established as a guide. I offer the following as a model to assist in leading change to make better decisions by followers and leaders.
First, if you are going to lead people through change, you should consider starting with well-defined objectives that will be applied to evaluate the possible outcomes and solutions to your change management. Doing this first will prepare you mind (and the minds of others) to produce relevant solutions that are not outside of the reality of possibilities as defined by your objectives.
Second, you should buffer the identification stages — where variety, independence and diversity trump systematic focus and analytic reasoning — from the selection of objective goals. We need to discourage criticism (whether objective or not) and evaluation of the objective end goals.
Third, win a core group of advocates. Start with a group process that is a discussion-based pooling of information. In this setting, all individuals should receive some time for sharing their personal best solutions or pre-solutions in concept. Allow for some deliberation to occur for individuals to reflect and create additional solutions built from the ideas of others or stimulated from the critique of their own ideas.
Fourth, propose diverse solutions. I would even say it’s best to promote diverse ideas above the variations of the past attempts. Consider that, in some places, diverse ideas need to be facilitated because it is likely the idea will come anonymously. When diversity is allowed, people often fear the social influence of disapproval, and a highly effective idea might not see full fruition.
Fifth, allow a means of recording and memorializing the solutions generated in every stage. Groups often do this through the use of flip charts or large Post-it notes. Use electronic files to keep track of tasks and who has volunteered to follow through. Review these files or minutes at every gathering of the group leading change.
Finally, adopt a definitive means to decide on an acceptable consensus. This is often done effectively by voting on a recommendation to bring to the decision-making authority. However, do not allow irrelevant social factors to influence the group. These factors can include social status, talkativeness and the likeability of the sources of feedback. Biased evaluations can bring the team to extreme ineffectiveness in carrying out the end goals as established in the first step.
We are called to do the work of God. The work of God is to believe in the one He has sent (John 6:29). The commission is to go and make followers of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey (Matthew 28:18–19, Mark 16:15–16). In one simple command, Jesus requires leaders to become followers and the changers to become the changed. Who then is exempt from being a follower? No one.
When I was a kid, I played the game “Follow the Leader.” The game had a single rule: Do what the leader did. The highest privilege was being the leader. I made following me a challenge.
In a world where a person can gain followers by simply complaining the loudest, flailing hands in the air and claiming #AlternativeTruths, what will it take to raise a generation of true leaders who are willing to step up and out? We tend to be afraid of change. In reality, we fear loss. Change is the ultimate loss.
Changing to follow Jesus includes loss of self — the loss of our identity and desires to take on a new life in Him. Jesus called us to change our ways, love God and make followers of Christ. We love God by demonstrating love and respect to all of His creation. The perfect expression of following to lead was Jesus carrying out His one goal in life: to do the will of the Father who sent Him. Because of Jesus following the Father, we are led to eternity.
Jay Cordova is an ordained elder who serves as the director of communications for the Free Methodist Church – USA. He previously worked as a startup business entrepreneur and coached small businesses in a Michigan incubator.1