How To Play Follow-The-Leader (Without Being Led Astray)

What to do when the world seems to be falling down around you?

Where to run to for cover? And who to look to for direction or leadership?

I don’t recall hearing the story of Henny Penny (or Chicken Licken, as it’s sometimes known) when I was a child, or perhaps I simply wasn’t impressed by the story of the little hen who throws herself and her friends into a panic when she mistakes an acorn falling on her head for the beginning of the end of the world.

And so, she sets out to tell the king: ‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’ And as she goes, she meets others who join her on her panic-stricken quest. The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

Now, as with many folk tales, there are many endings to this story, ranging from the happy-ever-after to the more gruesome, so it could be that I remained unimpressed because the story told to me had an ‘all is well that ends well’ ending, which just didn’t ring true.

Another ending has Henny Penny and her feathered friends meeting Foxy Loxy on the way, who promptly invites them to his lair for protection. Just in time for dinner!

Now that’s much more impressive, even for middle-aged me, and seems to me to be a far more apt and cautionary tale for our times, when it feels as though the world is falling down around our ears, and there’s no shortage of would-be leaders, whether kings or foxes, promising to fix the crumbling sky and lead us all to safety.

Sometimes, we’re told that we get the leaders we deserve and sometimes that’s true. But, of course, it’s never quite as simple as that. Much as we like to make it so, real life isn’t a morality tale. The good don’t always get their just reward, and the not-so-good (or simply the plain bad) don’t always get their just desserts.

But whatever about the good and the bad, things rarely end well for the gullible, and those of us rushing about taking the world and everyone in it at face value are likely to be misled, whether by kings or charlatans, if we don’t take a more critical view.

Although modern media appears to make matters worse when it comes to discerning our best course of action, and those best equipped to lead it, we’ve always shown a weakness for following the powerful or the cunning without question. It’s always been easy to join the baying crowd and to appoint the leader who plays on our fears and professes to understand us.

And it’s always been easy too to blame the messenger when our rush of blood leads us badly astray.

For in our story, we have three leaders to choose from (as well as quite a few followers). And although she might be reluctant to think so, our Henny Penny has the greatest responsibility of all when it comes to choosing which type of leader she will be.

So, what is the moral of Henny Penny, if it’s not that we get what we deserve? Perhaps it’s that each one of us, whether we like it or not, is tasked with leadership. Each of us can set our course of direction and invite others to join us, or instead choose to join those whose own course of direction truly matches ours.

And even if we are reluctant to appoint ourselves leaders, we certainly have a responsibility to be critical of those we rush to follow when they claim to have an easy fix for the sky falling. Otherwise, we might be just in time for someone else’s dinner.

This article is Gerard’s submission to CongRegation (the unconference) 2021.