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.