In Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic movie The Sound of Music, Maria, the new nanny for the von Trapp family, finds that the children don't know how to sing. So she teaches them the musical scale in song: "Let's start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. When you read you begin with A-B-C. When you sing you begin with do-re-mi."
Suppose Jesus came to earth to find that God's children didn't know how to lead. What do you think he might identify as "a very good place to start"? Where did he, in fact, teach us to start?
I'll tell you a sad hint: You won't find the answer anywhere in most current Christian books on leadership. Maybe the authors of these books think the principle so obvious that it would be wasting people's time to mention it. Yet Jesus counted it crucial. He repeated it often. He said, in essence, "When you lead, you begin with following me."
While on earth, Jesus cultivated 12 men to be apostles. Ultimately, he would entrust the 12 with authority and send them out to be key leaders in his church. Yet initially, Jesus said one thing to Peter, Andrew, James, John, Matthew, and the rest: "Follow me."
In Luke 9:23, Jesus told all of us where to start, including any who aspire to lead: "He said to all of them, 'Those who want to come with me must say no to the things they want, pick up their crosses every day, and follow me'" (GW).
Even a cursory look at all levels of leadership in our churches, denominations, networks, and ministries reveals that what should be foundational is often absent. Seeking to lead, we can and often do try to cultivate the personality, skills, and traits associated with leaders. Yet for all our learning, we often do not know how to follow God. Even more tragic, we don't know that we don't know.
If we fail to follow God, whether from rebellion or ignorance, we will lead people in the wrong direction. We'll fail as leaders in God's eyes. On the other hand, when we're following God fully, even if we don't see ourselves as leadership material, he can equip any one of us to lead.
Years ago, I was approached about taking a leadership role for which I felt utterly inadequate. As I sat before God, listing all the reasons why I could not do it, he led me to Scripture after Scripture that affirmed, "No, you can't, but I will be with you. I'll do it through you." Finally, I protested, "But Lord, it doesn't make any sense." In my spirit, I heard him say: "So will you follow me?"