What Makes a Follower?
Kings will be tyrants from policy, when subjects are rebels from principle.
You cannot be a leader without followers. Most leadership manuals focus on the attitudes and behaviors of good leaders. Few focus on training followers. But train them we must because followers who constantly undermine, criticize, or ridicule leaders soon may find themselves leaderless. Such followers believe that if you can drive out a leader from position, the leader was not worthy in the first place. This kind of thinking places accountability solely on the shoulders of leaders. Followers like these give themselves a pass on responsibility and can sap the joy and satisfaction out of running any organization. On the one hand, we do not want followers who act like sheep and do anything the leader asks. On the other hand, we do not want followers who see it as their job to challenge and disobey constantly. Warren Bennis believes that the ideal follower has one chief characteristic:
What makes a good follower? The most important characteristic may be a willingness to tell the truth. In a world of growing complexity, leaders are increasingly dependent on their subordinates for good information, whether the leaders want to hear it or not. Followers who tell the truth, and leaders who listen to it, are an unbeatable combination.1Warren Bennis, An Invented Life: Reflections on Leadership and Change (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 157.
Bennis calls this “effective backtalk” and cites the apocryphal story of moviemaker Samuel Goldwyn who, after several failed films, reputedly said to his staff: “I want you to tell me exactly what’s wrong with me and MGM, even if it means losing your job.”
The anecdote reveals that the very fragile relationship of leader and follower is malleable and under continuous scrutiny. Patrick Lencioni lists five behaviors of senior executives that compromise their success with followers for all the wrong reasons:
• Leaders need to be driven by results – but this can be undermined by the desire to protect their careers.
• Leaders need to make sure that their direct reports are accountable for delivering on commitments – but this can be undermined by the desire to be popular.
• Leaders need to make sure that they value clarity and direction above precision – but this can be undermined by their desire for accuracy.
• Leaders need to be well-informed and in charge – but this can be undermined by their desire for harmony.
• Leaders need to make sure those they lead can cultivate productive conflict – but this can be undermined by their sense of invulnerability.2Patrick Lencioni, The Five Temptations of a CEO (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 111–119.
In Numbers, we have multiple incidents that highlight poor followship, but none more dramatic than Korah’s rebellion against Moses. It is near impossible to imagine the inner strength required to put down the mutinous urgings of such a large and important group who dared to challenge Moses in public. But a careful reading of the narrative demonstrates that Moses did not fall prey to the ego traps that Lencioni determined bring down many people in senior positions. His capacity to separate outcome from personal attack and direction from harmony enabled him to survive this threat.
Korah’s rebellion must be understood as the book of Numbers’ most extreme example of what happens to a people not tethered to a fixed location and an ordered structure of behavior. Korah’s challenge to the status quo was a strange amalgamation of issues, almost too disparate to separate and make sense of logically:
They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3)
On the one hand, this sounds like a plea for a more egalitarian approach to leadership. If everyone is holy and God lives in the midst of all, then Moses and Aaron should not single themselves out for any accretion of power. But there is a boldness to Korah’s claim, “You have gone too far.” What precipitated this sudden exclamation of power? The previous passages in the text deal with legal issues that do not demonstrate any willful subordination of the community by Moses. This was not an immediate response to a problem, but the slow and lingering impact of conflict with Mosaic leadership built up over years. As more challenges came Moses’ way, the dissenters also raised themselves by rank and in decibel. As Numbers progresses, more people with more power were prepared to take Moses to task.
“Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi betook himself along with Datan and Abiram sons of Eliab” begins the list of those who accompanied “250 men of repute” to challenge Moses and Aaron (Num. 16:1–2). The term “betook,” rendered in Hebrew as “vayikach” implies a direct object; something must be actually taken. Baruch Levine uses the Akkadian cognate “lequ,” to take, as “to learn, to understand” as in the grasping of facts or knowledge. The leadership grasped what was happening and “confronted Moses with their grievances.”3Levine, The Anchor Bible: Numbers 1–20, 411. Many traditional commentators highlight the fact that Korah spoke the language of political democracy and spirituality in the third person, “taking” people in with his manipulative words when perhaps his interest was really in first-person control. There is a repeated emphasis on “all” and on the fabric of togetherness generated by a community of anger and protest: “They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’” (Num. 16:3).
All were holy to the exclusion of none. Korah equated holiness with power. If all were holy, then all were of equal power. This fallacious comparison ended up hurting Korah precisely because, as a Levite, Korah participated directly in the hierarchy of holiness. Korah’s own position of authority as a Levite, however, was not sufficient for him. Consequently, he sought to minimize Moses’ control by positing that neither Moses nor Aaron were given any responsibility that should set them apart from or above any other members of the community. This is exactly the way that Moses interpreted Korah’s behavior only verses later:
Moses said further to Korah, “Hear me, sons of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of the Lord’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?” (Num. 16:8–10)
Moses saw through the seductive appeal that Korah made to the people, suggesting that its underpinnings were not nearly as politically generous as they appeared at face value. Not only did Korah want to escalate his status, he also wanted to move outside the Tabernacle’s inner precincts to gain administrative control. Rather than merely ministering to altars and those who used them, Korah made a grab for more authority. Moses threw back to Korah the claims of abdicating communal responsibility for personal gain by questioning Korah’s love of power.
Moses’ first reaction, however, was not to question the questioner but merely to express humility. Moses confronted this large group headed by Korah with a shocking response:
When Moses heard this, he fell on his face. Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, “Come morning, the Lord will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen.” (Num. 16:4–5)
In his wisdom, Moses did not escalate the confrontation by making it personal. Rather, he fell on his face to suggest submission to a higher authority. God would be the ultimate arbiter of justice, determining holiness and power. Moses did not need to review his selection. He made no campaign speeches. No one voted for him. He did not want his position. God singled Moses out against his will and would judge the competition accordingly. According to Numbers 16, the fire pans of Moses, Aaron, and Korah and his band were used to assess whose sacrifice God found more pleasing, in order to determine the future leadership of the Israelites in the wilderness.
And take every man his fire pan and put incense on them and bring you each man his fire pan before God, two hundred and fifty fire pans and you and Aaron also each one his fire pans. And every man took his fire pan and put fire on them and laid incense on them and stood at the Tent of Meeting with Moses and Aaron. (Num. 16:17–19)
These verses convey the full drama of the conflict. Each person was, in essence, being placed on the altar for judgment because each person who rebelled had to bring a fire pan. The sincerity of each man was put to the test. One can only imagine hundreds of such small fires in competition with the lone pans of Moses and Aaron. It hardly seems much of a competition. But it served as a clever obfuscation and diffusion of tension.
The competition centered on the offering of incense. The notion that this leadership contest was contingent upon smell is unusual. It was not a competition of size or expense.
The idea that an offering’s smell can generate God’s pleasure or displeasure appears early in the Bible, as early as Genesis 9. After Noah left the ark and offered a sacrifice to thank God for his and his family’s salvation, God took in the smell with satisfaction, which was followed by a revelation:
The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself, “Never again will I doom the earth because of man since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” (Gen. 9:21–22)
The act of smell is immersive; smell can shape emotions and determine reactions. Imagine walking into a room and being overtaken by an awful smell; it is so overpowering that you cannot withstand it and have to leave the room. It influences every thought and impression that you have of the place. Smell is inescapable. The opposite is also true. When you are in a place that is infused with a good smell, like freshly baked bread, it has an almost tranquilizing appeal. A good smell can give the illusion of security and comfort, so seducing are its powers. In Noah’s case, the good smell of a sacrifice was the sign that God required to make a promise that life would return to its normal cycles despite the presence of evil. Evil would persist because of the machinations of human beings, but would not be able to overtake the pleasant and reassuring smells of love, compassion, and forgiveness.
Incense is the indicator of authenticity in Korah’s narrative. One may use words to mask reality, but sincerity has a smell. God could sniff out, so to speak, the genuineness of Korah’s entreaty and, more importantly, the leadership claims behind it.
Quelling the Margins
In managing this conflict, Moses made a few singular requests to individuals he believed should never have been included in this rebellion. It was beneath them. In it, they abandoned their core values. Failing to disabuse them of their error, Moses warned the community to keep away from these rebels, who could come to no good end given their poor judgment. Moses noted that the decision to punish these rebels was not of his doing, but a consequence of their own foolish behavior:
And Moses said, “By this you shall know that it was the Lord who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own: if devising these men die as all men do, if their lot be the common fate of mankind, it was not the Lord who sent me. But if the Lord brings about something unheard of so that the ground swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned the Lord.” (Num. 16:28–30)
If these individuals had behaved acceptably, they would have died of natural causes, “the common fate of mankind.” But if God decided through this competition of incense that these individuals were guilty, something of great drama awaited. Not a moment too soon did Moses speak before his words rang painfully true:
Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. All Israel around them fled at their shrieks, for they said, “The earth might swallow us up.” And a fire went forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men and their incense. (Num. 16:31–35)
This time, the ground itself became an altar. The sacrificial fires consumed all – people, belongings, and incense – in one awful amalgam, a sacrifice of the damned. Curiously, the text mentions twice that all the possessions of these individuals also tunneled down into the dark chasm of broken earth and then up in a failed leadership pyre. No trace of the objects or those who owned them remained to be taken by other Israelites, recycled or repossessed. No reminder of this profound mutiny remained. Those who grabbed for power grabbed nothing and left nothing.
No reminder, that is, except one. When this trial was over, God commanded Moses to have the fire pans used as part of the altar itself:
Remove the fire pans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar – for once they have been used for offering to the Lord, they have become sacred – and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel. (Num. 17:3)
A few verses later we are told that these hammered sheets are to be a reminder to the Israelites and Aaron’s offspring that they should not “presume to offer incense before the Lord and suffer the fate of Korah and his band” (Num. 17:5). A mere glimpse of these pans could make a grown man shudder.
It is odd and somewhat disturbing that the altar, the place of sanctification, was corrupted with these instruments of sin and recalcitrance. They should have been thrown away or dropped into the chasm that swallowed Korah and his partners. Gone was the sinner and gone would have been the vessels used to prove Korah’s error of judgment. Instead, the fire pans are twice referred to as holy objects and – as a testament to their holiness – used in the construction of an altar already complete in form. With this addition, the altar’s status changed from a functional object used in worship; it now doubled as a memorial.
Nahmanides was also troubled by the use of a holy object to remind the desert community of sin. He notes that while we are asked numerous times in the Bible to remember an act of evil or pain, this is not the same as incorporating physical reminders of such evil in a sacred place. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the fire pans do not represent Korah’s rebellion as much as Moses’ affirmation of leadership. “They remained dedicated to their original purpose, to prove what the true priesthood is, and, through this lasting decision, they belonged permanently to the most holy purposes of the Sanctuary they themselves became holy.”4Hirsch, The Pentateuch with Translation and Commentary, 288 (Numbers 17:1–3). In the realm of sacrifices, it is not size or quantity that counts but intent. These two pans – simple metal objects – held the truth of God’s power, and as such, they were the most appropriate building materials for the altar. They were used to confirm the most earnest and sincere commitment to leadership. Sanctity emerges from authenticity, connecting kedusha to emet, holiness to truth.
Korah’s rebellion left its physical and historical mark in a place of continued ritual use. The incorporation of physical pieces of the past on the stage of forgiveness and expiation, thankfulness and devotion, creates a much fuller picture of the altar’s significance. The altar was not merely a place where Israelites offered sacrifices to mark personal events and emotional states; it was a place that offered individuals meaning precisely because it carried the past of an entire nation: the joys, the deep pain, and the tears. Significance is not only attributed to the present acts that take place in sacred places; the sacristy of a place is a function of past history and complexity. That the altar could be a place both small enough to hold the gifts of paupers and large enough to hold the mistakes of past leadership was a tribute to its capacity to “contain multitudes.” In addition, that altar, to be a place of meaning, had to sanctify failure as well as success. Others could weep for forgiveness through its sacrifices because it represented some of ancient Israel’s greatest failures. These failures were not ignored; they were memorialized through a permanent structure. The complicated, hammered past is part of the ongoing present when past evil is blended with the continuing spirit of goodness and optimism.
Korah becomes, in these narratives, the quintessential bad follower. His ad hominem attacks, his confusing criticisms, and his need to rally crowds to add to the drama all demonstrate insecurity fueled by power, the worst kind of challenge to leadership. Looking back to Lencioni, Moses was able to choose trust over invulnerability, conflict over harmony, clarity over certainty, accountability over popularity, and results over status. He knew that his leadership would not be measured by how well he got along with others in this transitional stage of Jewish history, but by whether he was able to forge through contention to get closer to the ancient finish line. And he was willing to sacrifice position and status, if necessary, to achieve his leadership goal, narrow and ambitious as it was.
In On Leadership, John Gardner makes a distinction between power and leadership. The two, he says, intersect but are not the same. All leaders have a measure of power, but not all those with power are leaders.5John Gardner, On Leadership (New York: Free Press, 1990), 56. They may not know how to use power morally to achieve desired outcomes. Korah used power to intimidate and coerce. Moses used it to persuade and encourage cooperation. But when he was unable to persuade, he took the path of humility, and it made all the difference.
On the followship side, Bennis recommends thoughtful dissent. Leaders have to encourage healthy debate by listening. But followers have to express themselves in ways that leaders can hear what they are saying and not just the accompanying noise.