Good leaders have followers. That’s obvious -- but too often forgotten in the busyness of leadership opportunities.
Lewis and Clark blazed the longest, most ambitious, and well-known trail of any American explorers. Covering over eight thousand miles, their travels took them from St. Louis to Oregon and back in just over two years. Ten days into their monumental trip, the exploration party stopped to pay respects at the home of celebrated and then-elderly American explorer and folk hero, Daniel Boone.
Nearly forty years earlier, it was Boone who took his own two-year trip to explore beyond the original thirteen colonies. Returning home, he packed up his family and convinced fifty settlers to join him to establish Boonesborough, the first English speaking settlement in the west. Following what became known as the Wilderness Road, they cut some five hundred miles through the Cumberland Gap into the Kentucky valley.
During the next quarter century, over two hundred thousand people entered Kentucky following Boone’s trail, because he not only blazed the trail, but he also provided the leadership to enable others to settle the territory. Although his was a historic advance for the young American nation, Daniel Boone’s leadership did not catch the public’s attention until some twenty years later when his story was embellished by author John Filson.
Conversely, the return of Lewis and Clark was cheered nationally as a monumental feat. The expedition had gathered meticulous details about native peoples, topography, vegetation, and animal life. But after the report was delivered to the president, the explorers did not return to the west and settlers were slow to follow. Unlike Boone, they did not establish a trail that could easily be followed or invite settlers into the new land. The leadership of Lewis and Clark may have excited a nation, but it changed it little in the near term.
As leaders, Lewis and Clark went so far and so fast, no one else was able to follow and use the new territory they discovered. What they explored remained wilderness for decades after they returned to heroes’ welcome. Daniel Boone’s adventures were also significant, but less ambitious and not immediately heralded by others. His leadership was a central factor in expanding the boundaries of the United States because he brought others with him.
There are hundreds of definitions of leadership, and I frame mine in light of the contrast between these two historic approaches to exploring: Leadership is pushing out the boundaries and securing the territory. As leaders, we must take our followers with us -- not just explore on our own, leaving them behind to cheer our adventures.
Leaders must envision, probe, and then explore new opportunities. Because of their access to a broad network, anomalous perspective, and comprehensive role, leaders are often exposed to opportunities for exploring new domains. But it is equally important they always return to inspire, lead, and equip others that can follow them and fully utilize the leader’s advances.
God calls us to leadership so we can serve others, not so we can be applauded for our courage to get out front. Leaders who boldly explore may be recognized for their far-reaching vision, but those who return to develop others who can go with them are the true leaders. They are the ones most likely to make a long-term difference.
The responsibility of a leader is to maintain this balance of exploring the boundaries while providing the resources to secure and enrich newly established territory.
As leaders, too often we forget we are leading a wagon-train procession into new territory, and up front, we have a very different perspective and role from those who are tending to the supply wagons at the back of the column. Our view in leadership is broad, beautiful, and free ranging, while theirs is often hampered by the dust of those ahead and focused on the back end of the wagon before them.
Jesus sets the model for us. His parables were nearly always about those who did the tough work of the daily grind -- farmers, shepherds, and servants. He knew who secured the territory. We too, need to be leaders whose ultimate responsibility is to equip, support, and encourage those who secure the new territories we discover.
Roger Parrott is President of Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. He is the author of The Longview: Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders (David C. Cook).