What do followers want?

fLeadership. That’s a word I’ve heard a lot about the past 25 years. We Christians talk an awful lot about leadership: Who is a leader? Who is allowed to be a leader? Why be a leader? How was Jesus a leader? In all the talk about leadership I finally came across a book that asks the question from a different angle, one that I am passionate about: What do followers want?

As a leader and in all your learning about how to be a good leader, did you ever stop to consider what your followers want? It seems to me that this should be our very first question, and an ongoing question. Some leaders may dismiss this question, thinking it would lead to weak leadership. And there is some truth in that line of thinking. If a leader continually does what his or her followers want, doesn’t that mean he or she is no longer leading? Perhaps so. But I am discovering that leaders who ignore their followers, continually doing only what the leadership wants, are at risk of extinction.

Recently my wife and I took part in a program called “Strength Finders”. It is a program developed by Gallop, Inc. The program we participated in consisted of a strength test, a book about the test called “Strengths Based Leadership“, and an all-day session in which one of our pastors led our team of about 24 people through interactive group activities designed to help us discover and understand our own strengths as well as the strengths of the other participants.

Here is a summary of the book and some key findings, which I find remarkably fascinating and relevant!

The Data

A team of experts at Gallop spent decades gathering data about leadership. Here is what they did:

  • 20,000 in-depth interviews with senior leaders
  • 1 million+ studies of work teams
  • 50 years of Gallup Polls about the world’s most admired leaders
  • 10,000 Gallup studies of followers around the world, in multiple cultures

All this research was geared toward answering one question: Why do people follow their most influential leader?

The Findings About Leaders

1. The most effective leaders are always investing in their strengths.

The odds of an employee being engaged are 1 in 11 (9%) when the leadership fails to focus on individual strengths of each employee. The odds increase to almost 3 in 4 (73%) when the leadership invests in each employee’s strengths.

2. The most effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and then maximize their team.

While the best leaders are not well-rounded, the best teams are. Top-performing leaders do not try to be balanced or strong in all areas. The most effective leaders build effective, balanced teams of individuals.

3. The most effective leaders understand their followers’ needs.

The best leaders were found to be in-touch with the needs of their followers. And instead of presuming to know what their followers need, the most influential and effective leaders did something remarkable to understand their followers needs: they asked them. They talked to them. They listened.

Why do people follow?

The Gallop studies presented people with two questions: What leader has had the most positive influence in your daily life? Now, please list three words that best describe what this person contributes to your life?

The top four words from the studies resulted in a good summary of what followers need. People generally won’t follow a leader without these four traits.





Who am I?

I’ve had to ask this many times the past 2 years. Do I know my strengths? I am finding that I didn’t really know myself very well. And I didn’t know my wife either! But these days we are joyfully following Jesus on an amazing journey of self-discovery and learning how to invest in the lives of other people in a healthy way. My wife and I have found the Strength Finders program to be highly insightful and astoundingly accurate! We each know our own top 5 strengths. We are now able to learn how to invest in these strengths, as well as how to begin to recognize the downside of each strength as we “bump into” other people. The traits I find in others that annoy me may actually be a reflection of that person’s strengths expressed in a negative way. I’m learning that a strength is only a strength if positively applied.

Find out More

I urge our readers here to find out more about Strength Finders. Might we look inward for a moment and ask ourselves “what do my followers want?” How are you building trust? Are you demonstrating compassion regularly? Do you give stability to your followers? How often do you instill hope in the people around you?

The answers to these questions may in fact determine the future of your organization.


  1. Thanks, Brian, for this excellent post.

    This is perhaps a digression, but Samuel Lee did demonstrate the excellent leadership traits you mentioned, which could account for UBF expanding to 80 nations and sending out 1,500 missionaries in 50 years. This is a Herculian feat that not many can accomplish. Of course, I am not just giving credit to him, but acknowledging God’s good mysterious sovereign purpose.

    Personally, Lee did expresses clearly to me the four traits of trust, compassion, stability and hope, for which I still cherish and wish to emulate.

    When he was alive and mentoring and discipling me, I “overlooked” his faults and weaknesses. But now I see the fruit of his weaknesses and brokenness in many UBF chapters, both big and small, which has been openly discussed on UBFriends, and hopefully making a slight difference by God’s grace.

    • Ben, the Strength Finders test rates your answers according to 34 strengths and groups the strengths into 4 leadership themes (and it is interesting to note that my strengths line up well with my spiritual gifts survey).

      The 4 themes are: Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building and Strategic Thinking. In my observation, SLee and many ubfers are likely to be high in the first two themes. And no doubt, SLee had the strength called “woo”. For me, I am high in the last two themes, which means that me and Korean ubfers should actually have much to offer each other, if the ubf ideology could be removed from the context.

      However, when the “executers” and “influencers” fail to use their strengths positively, these strengths degenerate into spiritual abuse in a religious setting. And when I fail to express my “relationship” and “strategic” strengths in a positive way, I am not able to move on and we end up with some of the blogging situations :)

      This also explains to me some reasons why I was not happy as a “ubf director” and “pioneer”. I am not that kind of leader. I believe these things make knowing our self and our story very important in a religious setting. And because our strengths as a leader can be used negatively so easily, submitting to the Holy Spirit as our Director is vital to a healthy church.

      By the way, your post from a while ago is very much related:

      What kind of leader are you?

      Instead of slamming different shaped people into a small round hole, ubf ought to take time to find out what kind of leader people are and listen to what followers want.

    • Ben, you say: “Samuel Lee did demonstrate the excellent leadership traits you mentioned, which could account for UBF expanding to 80 nations and sending out 1,500 missionaries in 50 years. This is a Herculian feat that not many can accomplish. Of course, I am not just giving credit to him, but acknowledging God’s good mysterious sovereign purpose.”

      I always wonder why credit for this is given to either Lee or just God, but not to those 1500 missionaries. Lee went to a rich country, never had a proper job and lived from the aid and money of UBF members. He was like the queen in a bee hive. Those who really went out into foreign countries (not only the US but also poor countries) in the face of financial insecurity, those who really went on the campuses and into the dormitories and made Bible studies, wore the lower level missionaries, not the leadership.

      Also, in relation to the effort in terms of heart blood, money, time, energy, man- and woman-power, UBF mission is a big failure. Just imagine how many precious years of their life the UBF worker bees invested in UBF mission! I alone gave the best 10 years of my life, when I was still full of energy and healthy. Let’s be honest about that. UBF always ebbs between recognizing that it’s a failure (they would call this “manger ministry” or refer to Isa 6:13 to make it sound like that this failure is a sign of spirituality) and bragging about what a huge success it is and that it is the biggest movement of our times (which is then also seen as a proof of its spirituality). I wished they could make up their mind about that aspect.

      Personally I don’t think that either failure or success is a proof of spirituality. There are movements and cults which grew much faster and larger than UBF. You cannot rate a leader through the devotedness and number of his followers. Quick growth and unusual amount of specific devoteness rather make me suspicious.

      In the book of acts, you never see such numbers “we sent 1500 missionaries” mentioned, because nobody cared to build and organization under which this was done and which would get the credit for this. Neither did they have hierarchical leadership structures of apostles, where the top apostles like Peter or Paul would get credit for all the missionaries that were sent out. Quite to the contrary, Paul made it so clear in 1 Cor 3 that it was a community effort, that no leaders should be given credit, and no leaders should be followed except Jesus Christ. The dangerous thing about UBF is that everything good that happens in UBF (because people read the Bible and find God) is accredited to the organization and its leader, which therefore bloats infinitely with pride and uses it to control people. The only possibility to counter this development is to openly admit the horrible mistakes in the past, both concrete wrongdoings of the founder and top leadership, and the fundamental mistakes in practice and teaching. As long as UBF is still celebrating itself, they haven’t understood anything.

      Another option would be to stop seeing UBF as a separated organization, but part of the larger body of Christ. UBF should stop considereing themselves as a fully-fledged church when they clearly are not, and intermingle with real churches instead. E.g. UBF could provide Bible study for students, but let people be members of ordinary churches and attend their Sunday worship services. Then this whole separation and elitism would stop, and the cult practices and teachings would stall, because they prosper only in closed groups and environments.

  2. So just to clarify a bit… I don’t think any leader has the traits of trust, compassion, stability and hope. These are things followres need. They are qualities that one person can invoke in another person, and qualities that a leader must invoke in their followers in order to be successful. So it is not the leader who has these traits, but the followers. [It seems in your case, Ben, SLee used his strength of “woo” and “command” in a positive way so that you felt trust, compassion, stability and hope in your relationship with him. Unfortunately, those strengths were employed in a negative way toward others, so they didn’t experience those good things.]

    So no matter what our strengths are or what our leadership themes are, a leader needs to instill/invoke/give/build the qualities of trust, compassion, stability and hope in their followers. This doesn’t just apply to positions of authority, it applies to parents and children, and to friends and maybe even to strangers.

    Perhaps Jesus is a special case. Being God, he seems to have embodied trust, compassion, stability and hope, as well as giving such things to His followers.

  3. @ Brian, I think that my strengths are Influencer and Strategic Thinking, while my weaknesses are Execution and Relationship Building. Because I “think more than I do” some get frustrated with me for being “idealistic but impractical,” which I actually agree.

    @ Chris, I love the way you write and express yourself and I basically agree and think that you are quite spot on with your assessment of SL and UBF’s faulty flip flop inconsistent and unbiblical way of celebrating and taking credit for successes and for avoiding blame or blaming exUBFers for their abusive practices.

    As much as you would like not to give any credit to SL for UBF’s “success” (or failure), it is undeniable that SL influenced and shaped what UBF is today in almost all of its good and bad aspects.

    In my opinion, SL virtually single-handedly gave a generation of Korean Christians a deep sense of identity, calling, nationalistic pride and self-worth that is still quite evident in today’s missionaries, which sadly sometimes comes across to indigenous people all over the world as though they are superior untouchable human beings toward whom we must always be deferential as though before a king.

    Hitler influenced Germans out of pure evil, while SL attempted to do it for the love of God as a good and evil man like all the rest of us Christians who are saved only by the grace of God.

    • Ben, in regard to Hitler, I would say that he influenced people out of much good. We rarely have the capacity to see beyond the end result of Hitler’s empire, but we should study how Hitler began his rise to power. He did many good things, and inspired a whole generation of Germans with noble ideas and the hope of building a pure society. And he used the Church to help. Christians either didn’t see the danger in Hitler’s noble visions or endorsed him because of his “fight for the common man” and “vision for the nation.”

      All such power regimes deteriorate and crumble in the end, yes, but almost all of them started with good, noble and even pure desires.

      In fact we are still influenced by some of Hitler’s work today, such as the Volkswagon automobile.