July 2009


I saw an announcement that a group of futurists was meeting in Chicago this past weekend to consider where the world is going in the near and longer-term future. The few things I read about it were a little troubling, because the experts were predicting the medical and ecological trends we face today continuing to their logical conclusions.

Here’s the problem: trends are never linear. Every trend has a shelf life. So the future is never more of today; often it’s a response to or rebellion against today.  Let me give an example from Wycliffe. When we began to plan our new Orlando headquarters building almost ten years ago, leaders were asked to project staffing for the next ten years and request space to meet the needs of the future. Of course, we predicted growing numbers of office-bound staff, and the result is a facility with a lot of elbow room. We’re moving departments together to create larger sections that can be rented out to our partners.

As we look ahead, who’s to say that the future is more and more remote work? In ten or fifteen years, will people start gathering together to work again? I suspect not, but I wouldn’t rule out a confluence of forces such as a reaction against technology or a new economic or business model that suddenly revives the popularity of working in large facilities. What I can say with some confidence is that if that were to  happen, it would look considerably different than our current setup. We can slap the “retro” label on it: an improved variation on something that was never as great as we all remember it.

I can’t wait for the retro commuting movement. It’s going to be so phat.

There’s something about casual Fridays that elicits intense emotion in our office among the younger crowd. I’d even go so far as to say that the older generations really don’t understand the passion. After all, it’s just clothes, right?

It’s not about the jeans. The more I think about it, I realize that it’s more about not putting on a front. It’s about being themselves. It seems every time I go to publish another post, there’s another politician or pastor who’s fallen from grace because they couldn’t take that mask off once they started wearing it. The best antidote is vulnerability. Young leaders know that they’re woefully inadequate jacked-up sinners in need of God’s grace, and most are willing to admit it. So, why dress up?

Okay, it’s also about the jeans. They’re just plain comfortable. Many young people have begun their job searches hoping for opportunities to work in their own setting and their own hours. It’s their preferred workstyle. Hotels are noticing; a few years ago they finally started putting electrical and internet hook-ups and other conveniences near the beds. Why? Because they know their clients sit in bed to prepare their presentations and make phone calls and work on email, shunning the traditional desk in every room. With a laptop and an iPhone, it doesn’t matter where you work. And if it doesn’t matter where you work, it doesn’t matter what you wear. If they get a choice, they’ll pick jeans or a T-shirt and shorts every time.

How do you recognize leadership gifts in someone? You may have read John Maxwell’s scale of leadership. I’m not sure how much I agree with the concept or his analysis of the scale, but it’s a useful device to make an observation from my own experience. If you’re a 7 on the leadership scale and you have an 8 working under you, they will likely be a thorn in your side.

How exactly will that manifest itself? They might be the one who critiques everything you do. They might take initiative on projects you didn’t want them working on. They might be the one who takes the inch and turns it into a mile. They might go around the system instead of working within the boundaries. There are leadership traits on display in every one of those abuses of the supervisory relationship.

There are three choices for the manager, then.

  1. You can either call it leadership and give them opportunities to grow their abilities in a healthy setting.
  2. You can liberate them so they can move on to a job where they can better utilize their “gifts.”
  3. Or you can suppress their initiative.

The third leads to broken trust, continued pain and crushed spirits. I’ve been in that position, and I suggest that there are really only two choices for a person like this.

Let me suggest one possible conclusion: look at them as a chance to work yourself out of a job. Grit your teeth and pour into this emerging leader for a year or two, refine their rough edges and then liberate them by stepping aside. After all, if you’re truly a 7 on the scale, the best thing you can do is recognize the time to step aside and let them shine. If you do it right, you can count their future success as your success.

Leadership isn’t just something you’re going to when you grow up. It’s something anyone can do, right now. If you think you need a position to lead, you’re not really a leader.

Consider Jephthah in the Bible. Don’t know who he is? He’s worth looking up. Judges 11 says he was a great warrior but born into a broken family that left him an outcast, chased off by his half brothers. “Soon he had a band of worthless rebels following him.” You know you’re a leader when people follow you without any effort on your part. The thing I like about Jephthah’s story is that he didn’t mope or give up. He led where he was, and it was in the land of Tob that he sharpened his leadership skills. Sure enough, his family’s clan soon got into trouble and begged him to return and lead them, “Because we need you.” As you’d expect, he was very, very careful before he stepped into a greater position of authority, but he was ready, and he led Israel through 6 years of war.

Consider David. He also didn’t have the pedigree of a leader and was overlooked by his family. His resume was pretty thin when Samuel first put him on the succession plan. He was then put on hold for decades and had to flee for his life. After a series of escapes, including feigning insanity to avoid detention in Gath, he ended up in a cave. I Samuel 22 says, “Soon his brothers and all his other relatives joined him there. Then others began coming — men who were in trouble or in debt or who were just discontented — until David was the captain of about 400 men.” David honed his leadership skills in the wilderness and in exile. He didn’t choose his followers, but he was faithful to lead where he was, and his followers became fiercely loyal.

Leadership is something that happens independent of position or title. Leadership is more about who you are than where you are or what’s on your job description. As “a famous Gulf War general” puts it in The 52nd Floor: Thinking Deeply About Leadership,

[Leadership] is an intensely private affair. I say it is private because it all boils down to your inner experience of the context you are operating in. It’s private in that sense, but public in the sense that it is engaged with others out in the open for everyone to see and scrutinize.

David and Jephthah were by no means perfect. There’s plenty to question in their lives and leadership, but they didn’t wait for their dream positions. They learned their lessons, not in the classroom but in the wilderness. Long before they were “discovered,” they rolled up their sleeves and led where they were.

For more on this subject, check out my post on being developed versus being discovered.

One of my early mentors in graphic design once advised me to keep a sketch book and write down every idea I have. He told me when you’re young, you have lots of ideas but no resources to pull them off. When you get older and finally have the resources, you won’t be able to think of any good ideas.

At the Catalyst Conference in Atlanta last year, Andy Stanley took it one step further. He said the chances are, if you’re over 45, you won’t have any good ideas anymore. Your job is to recognize a good idea when you see it in the younger generation. As Al Reis said,

The Next Generation product almost never comes from the previous generation.

Of course my mind obsessed on the age. While I was excited to hear that I have eight more years of good ideas, I winced at my proximity to that devastating day when all of a sudden, the flow will dry up.

Instead, let me refocus to the fairly obvious conclusion: we need to get the generation with the resources together with the generation with the ideas. Established leaders have the ability and the responsibility to come alongside and sponsor the great ideas of the next generation.

How can we do that? Give me your ideas; I’d like to develop some kind of system for idea sponsorship at Wycliffe.

I need your help on this one, because I’m getting close to that line.

Those who have authority can bestow it on others.

There are a few verses that talk about this kind of loaned authority. In John 10:18, Jesus says he has the authority to lay down his life or pick it up again at will. In John 17:2, he points out that the Father has granted Jesus the authority to then give eternal life to anyone the Father has given him. In John 19, Pilate tells Jesus he has the power to release or crucify him. Jesus quietly responds that he wouldn’t have that power if God (Jesus) didn’t give it to him. So, who is the one really in charge of that situation?

Those who have power have the ability to give their power to others. The Roman Centurion certainly understood this. The reason he believed Jesus could heal with just a word was because of his own context and ability to exert authority over those subject to him. But the way he says it is not, “I too have great authority.” Instead, he says, “I myself am a man under authority.” In other words, being under authority gives you authority. Who you represent or speak for makes a difference. When I was a project manager for a senior VP a few years ago, I understood that I was a peon in a room full of VPs. But occasionally, I would enter that room with a message from the senior VP. I had huge authority at those times.

Established leaders have authority. With their position, experience and networks, established leaders have a great amount of power. But, with power comes great responsibility. I believe one of the primary responsibilities for established leaders is to  use their authority on behalf of young, emerging leaders.

Consider the story of Jesus at a Pharisee’s dinner party. He’s interacting with a crowd of power brokers when suddenly a hysterical prostitute crashes the party. She debases herself, crying at Jesus’ feet and then using her hair to dry the tears and then anoint his feet with expensive perfume. The guests begin to murmur. At this point, Jesus has a choice. He can recognize her and give her status in the group. Or he can ignore her, protecting his own status. Of course, he chooses the former and even elevates her at the expense of his host. He lends her credibility.

Another example from my own life. I know my 3-year-old daughter’s personality very well. When we host a community group in our house, she’ll often break away from the kids in a back bedroom and run into the middle of our meeting, interrupting the discussion. As the leader of the group, I have the power to crush her by telling her to go away, in which she will become very shy and hurt. She’ll leave, but she’ll be inconsolable for ten minutes. Or I can look at her and acknowledge her, in which case she gets a big smile and runs to me. That’s what Jesus did. That’s loaned influence.

A reluctant leader is like my daughter. When she takes a careful step forward, established leaders have the ability to snuff out that flame or fan it by loaning their influence.

I’m reading a great new book by Jimmy Long, called The Leadership Jump. It’s an attempt to depict the leadership styles of the generations and then build bridges between the two. In other words, it’s the book I was going to write. There’s a great chapter on authority that got me thinking.

I’m sure you’ve heard the line from John Maxwell, “A leader without any followers is just taking a walk.” One of the best measures of whether a person-of-title is a leader is to ask whether anyone would be following them if they didn’t have the position. A leader will influence whether or not they have a title.

There are two types of nontraditional authority that mean everything to emerging leaders: moral authority and spiritual authority. These are the lenses ermerging leaders use to take the measure of established leaders.

My working definitions, inspired by a few web searches and conferences, are these:

Moral authority — the ability to influence others based on a leader’s character, wisdom or experience. Moral authority comes from such traits as integrity, vulnerability, consistency, persistence and willingness to guide and mentor others. Often we lend a huge amount of moral authority to someone who has personally gone to great lengths through great pain to accomplish something.

Spiritual authority — according to Steve Moore of The Mission Exchange, the right to influence given to a leader by his followers based on their perception of spirituality in the life of the leader. In churches and parachurch ministries, this power-base can be very powerful (consider Jim Jones, for instance). No wonder then that when a ministry leader is caught in duplicity or hypocrisy, the fall from power can be very sudden  and complete.

Neither involves the use of force, title or position. These are types of power given from below. They are accumulated slowly and lost quickly. That’s why Long calls them “earned authority.”