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Follow the Leader

Craig Jutila

If no one's behind you, you may have a loyalty problem.


More than 10 years ago I sat in a staff meeting ripe with tense energy. The senior pastor lectured us -- his staff -- about loyalty, commitment, and dedication to the "boss." His words that day rocked me back on my heels. With great energy and passion, he aimed his finger at each of us, his eyes piercing as he uttered words that still ring in my mind: "Listen everyone, I demand your loyalty!"

I was in my 20s and the youngest person on staff at the table that day. I was naïve about the political climate of our church…and I had a tendency toward sarcasm. These two things usually didn't mix well when I spoke up or questioned anything. I remember sitting at the table, processing the information I'd just heard, and deciding it would most definitely be in my best interest to not speak up this time. Even so, I raised my hand.

"What is it, Craig?" barked the pastor.

I then spoke the few, simple words that landed me on an exit-from-staff pattern over the next two years: "I don't think you can demand loyalty. I think it's earned."

What did I just say? I might as well have said, "Next Friday will be my last day; thanks for the opportunity to work here."

The senior pastor said nothing -- at least, not verbally. His nonverbal communication was quite enough, and I heard it loud and clear.

The Essence of Loyalty

To this day, I look back and wonder, Was I right? Was I wrong?

What is loyalty? How do you get it? Is it earned, demanded, coerced, or built over time? I thought I knew a decade ago. But since then, I've been driven to the Scriptures to find out what loyalty is really all about.

Several years ago I found a key passage explaining loyalty. It's Joshua 1:16-18, describing the children of Israel's response to their new leader, Joshua, after Moses died. Their response was an expression of commitment, dedication, and willingness to follow their new leader. But if you look closely at verse 18, you'll notice a condition on the leader's part -- something that's necessary for every leader to do to earn and maintain loyalty.

If the Lord our God will help you as he helped Moses, and if you are strong and brave, we will obey you as we obeyed Moses. We'll even put to death anyone who rebels against you or refuses to obey you.

-Joshua 1:18 (Contemporary English Version)

The condition: "If you are strong and brave, we will obey you as we obeyed Moses."

You must be courageous, brave, willing to lead. You must be willing to pay the price, crash through quitting points, and be worthy of others' loyalty. This Scripture expresses an expectation of availability, commitment, honor, and respect -- all characteristics of loyalty-building leadership.

If you're courageous, brave, and strong in the face of difficulty, people will follow you and you'll foster a culture of loyalty. The opposite is also true. If you waver, shrink from difficulty, or don't particularly like the heat that comes from being in the fire of tension and persecution, then you probably won't have loyal followers. Why? People want to know before they charge into hell with a squirt gun whether you're willing to get burned or if you'll cut and run at the last second.

The Battle for Loyalty

The problem with loyalty is that it's not easy to come by since it's dependent on others' choices. If it were easy, every leader would have it. Even if you provide the best possible loyalty-building environment, those serving with you still have to choose to be loyal.

Jesus had this issue. He preselected 12 followers. They were, for the most part, loyal. Sure, there was the situation with Peter just before Jesus' crucifixion, and there was also one who appeared to be loyal when in fact he was extremely disloyal: Judas, of course. Jesus knew the pain of betrayal and lack of commitment. So if you've felt the pains of disloyalty, you're in good company. We've all experienced others' mistrust, confidentiality breaches, and betrayal.

It takes a lot to get people following you, and it takes even more to keep them loyal. And just because you've earned loyalty doesn't mean you automatically get to keep it. Loyalty is active. You must prove yourself continually and be willing to run into the fire over and over. You don't buy it, you don't demand it, and you don't assume it.

Think of it this way. Every time you do or say something that earns someone's trust, that person takes out an imaginary wallet and adds trust credits. When there are enough trust credits, loyalty develops. But whenever you say or do something untrustworthy, the person withdraws trust credits. Poof -- there they go into thin air. And these withdrawals occur in large increments, because it's incredibly easy to wipe your accrued trust with careless actions and words. You can be labeled untrustworthy with one poor choice and ruin a relationship in a matter of minutes. Building loyalty can take years, and yes, it's hard work.

You need to understand where loyalty comes from and how to develop it if you want to become a leader worth following. Let's look at common myths about loyalty.

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