Followership in Elisha and Gehazi
The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.
Followership in Elisha and Gehazi
Usually, drawing comparisons between two people is ineffective because of how different their situations are. However, both Elisha and Gehazi served as the primary long-term assistant to the most prominent prophet in Israel. Elisha served the prophet Elijah and Gehazi later served Elisha in a similar capacity. As such, their roles as followers are comparable and provide a unique opportunity to evaluate their followership according to Zaleznik’s and Kelley’s typologies.
Because humans are dynamic creatures who engage in dynamic relationships, the nature of followership is also dynamic. People follow differently at different seasons in their lives. There is a visible difference in Elisha’s and Gehazi’s followership at different moments in their careers. This analysis considers Elisha on the days Elijah called him (1 Kings 19:20-21) and left him (2 Kings 2:1-14), Gehazi with the Shunammite woman and her son (2 Kings 4:8-37), and Gehazi when he lied to Naaman and Elisha (2 Kings 5:20-27).
Zaleznik categorized followers based on their dominance and activity. He typologically identified followers as withdrawn (submissive and passive), masochistic (submissive and active), compulsive (dominant and passive), and impulsive (dominant and active).
When Elijah called Elisha, Elisha followed (1 Kings 19:21) only after kissing his parents goodbye, burning the plows, and boiling the oxen (1 Kings 19:20-21). Following on his own terms demonstrated Elisha’s dominance and activity, characteristics of an impulsive follower.
When God is about to take Elijah away after his 18 years with Elisha, Elijah asks Elisha to stay behind. The pattern of Elijah’s request and Elisha’s disobedience happens three times (2 Kings 2:2, 4, & 6). Merida stated that “Elisha will not let Elijah shake him.” This is active disobedience and requires travel from Gilgal to Bethel, Jericho, and across the Jordan River. Elisha is again dominant and active, reinforcing his identity as an impulsive follower.
In the beginning of Gehazi’s time with Elisha, Gehazi takes an active role in the ministry, traveling with Elisha and performing any manner of tasks which Elisha commands. There is also evidence of Gehazi’s submissiveness early on, most notably when he runs back to Elisha for further directions after the Shunammite woman’s son did not immediately revive. Based on this combination of activity and submissiveness, Gehazi is a masochistic follower.
However, over the course of time Gehazi developed into an impulsive follower, just like his master Elisha. He continued to be active, but his submission morphed into dominance. When Elisha declined Naaman’s gift, Gehazi defied his master and lied to Naaman for his personal gain. One might mistake this act for devotion to Elisha and his welfare—a submissive act in its own way—if not for Gehazi lying to Elisha about his actions immediately afterward. The second lie betrays Gehazi’s dominance; a submissive follower would have confessed and repented. This sequence of deception and denial demonstrate Gehazi’s transition into an impulsive follower.
Interestingly, Elisha and Gehazi both being impulsive followers who chose to disobey their masters does not result in the same outcome. Elisha received a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2:9-10) for his disobedience while Gehazi received leprosy for his (2 Kings 5:27). Nothing in Northouse’s discussion of Zaleznik’s typology explains this stark difference in outcomes, which highlights a limitation of this model. Elisha alludes to impatience or greed as the reason Gehazi received leprosy, so perhaps the difference in outcomes is related to the followers’ motivations. If this is the case, then it may be that impulsive “followers” are not really followers at all, but free agents who will join themselves to leadership when they perceive doing so is beneficial and act independently at other times. Gardner put it this way, “Followers do what… [their] …leader asks them to do. If not, they are no longer followers.”
Kelley addressed followers’ motivations using another matrix divided by two axes: thinking and activity. The thinking continuum has independent critical thinking at the high side and dependent uncritical thinking on the low side. Kelley identified followers as passive (low thinking and activity), conformist (low thinking, high activity), alienated (high thinking, low activity), exemplary (high thinking and activity), and pragmatic (moderate thinking and activity).
According to Kelley’s typology, Elisha was an exemplary follower. Both at the beginning and end of his time with Elijah, Elisha was an independent critical thinker who was active in Elijah’s ministry.
Gehazi started as both pragmatic and conformist. When Elijah wants to do something for the Shunammite woman, Gehazi has the answer, but he never suggested it until Elisha asked. He is pragmatic in this exchange, with moderate thinking skills and moderate activity. A few years later, when the Shunammite woman’s son dies, Gehazi displays low thinking skills but is still active. In this context, he is conformist. When Gehazi approaches Naaman to ask for his gifts, he shows high thinking skills and activity. He is exemplary, just like his master Elisha.
In this typology, Elisha and Gehazi again share the same followership style. However, again these result in different outcomes. This suggests that this matrix also provides an incomplete understanding of follower behavior. Crossman and Crossman highlighted the problems of Kelley’s typology, stating that “the assumptions are not based on empirical research… …[that] ‘no research [had] yet validated Kelley’s followership measures…,’” and that an attempt “to verify Kelley’s assumptions [led to] mixed findings.”
While Kelley’s matrix did not explain the difference in outcomes between Elisha’s followership and Gehazi’s, his further description of the ideal characteristics of followers does. According to Northouse, Kelley found four qualities common to good followers—independence, commitment, competence, and character. Gehazi lacks two of those characteristics and these shortcomings may explain his demise.
Goldsmith wrote that musicians “may follow the conductor, but [they] serve the music.” Likewise, Elisha may follow Elijah, and Gehazi may follow Elisha, but they serve God. Merida characterized Elisha’s disobedience as passing a test of his dedication and the double portion as being necessary “to complete the task to which he is called.” Elisha faithfully served God by following Elijah. Contrast this with Davis’ description of Gehazi’s actions as implying “that Yahweh was a ‘taker’ like all the other deities that littered the Near East.” Gehazi besmirched God’s reputation when he lied about Elisha. In leadership and in followership, it is vital to understand the cause one serves.
Andersen, J. A. (2019). On “followers” and the inability to define. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 40(2), 274-284. https://doi.org/10.1109/lodj-11-2018-0414
Crossman, B. & Crossman, J. (2011). Conceptualizing followership – A review of the literature. Leadership, 7(4), 481-497. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715011416891
Davis, D. R. (2005). 2 Kings: The power and the fury. Christian Focus.
Holy Bible, New King James Version. (2020). Thomas Nelson (Original work published 1982).
Merida, T. (2015). Christ-centered exposition commentary: Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Kings. B & H Publishing Group.
Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership: Theory and practice (8th ed.). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Orzolek, D. C. (2020). Effective and engaged followership: Assessing student participation in ensembles. Music Educators Journal, 106(3), 47–53. https://doi.org/10.1177/0027432119892057