February 2010


Steve Moore talked about the “reactive hypothetic” — a young leader with enough self awareness and contextual consciousness that he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, but isn’t willing/ready/courageous enough to be the one taking initiative. The problem is that this kind of person can end up in the peanut gallery, taking potshots at leadership.

Coming from a generation that prefers the role of critic, I see this one all the time. I’m reminded of a great moment in The Princess Bride when Andre the Giant is told he can take care of someone “his way.” “Oh, good… which way’s my way?” We know that something’s wrong with a situation, but we don’t know how we’d do it any differently. I’ve always got my eyes open for those exceptional young people who follow through with ideas to fill the void. It’s easy to point out mistakes, but are they willing to offer alternatives to replace what’s broken?

That takes courage and determination. Courage to decide you’re going to succeed with a new model. And perseverance similar to a 1-year-old learning to walk — determination that you’re going to try something, and if it fails, you’ll get up and try again.

Don’t get the wrong impression. I don’t think leaders have to have all the answers before they get started. The close of Deborah Reidy’s Reluctant Leaders paper makes a great point:

Finally, remember that leadership often begins with an uneasiness, a vague, unarticulated sense that things are not quite right but no idea what would be right or how to bring it about. As Ron Heifetz writes, ‘One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.’

It’s a myth that you have to have all the answers, that you have to have it all together, that you have to have the complete package before you lead. Frankly, it’s an outright lie. The best thing for a young leader is to get in the game. You won’t develop leadership abilities in a vacuum, and you probably won’t come up with the answers until you start trying.

Anyone who is willing to combine a good question with a determination to try until they succeed is going to change the world. Ask any of the Gen-X CEOs of Google, YouTube, eBay or Amazon. Did any of them hit gold on their first attempt? Malcolm Gladwell broke down that misperception in Outliers. Kings don’t simply happen; it takes hard work to be king.

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I think servants and visionaries both have good eyes. It takes someone special to see an opportunity that everyone else has missed… and get there first.

The key to a great visionary is that everyone else asks themselves why they didn’t think of that. Somehow, in the context everyone was looking at, no one else saw the opportunity or was positioned to take advantage. I was reminded recently that a number of the companies that took our economy down last year were founded during the Great Depression. They were founded by visionaries who found a way to do things differently when everyone else was stuck in the decline. Unfortunately, the companies they started weren’t able to sustain that heritage… or held onto their heritage. A topic for another day, I suppose.

Likewise, servants have good eyes. Think about every period movie about British high society you’ve ever seen. Someone pointed out to me that the key to being a good servant was to watch their master’s hands. A good servant could anticipate the need of their master by watching body language and meet the need before it was expressed. I see the same quality in people who serve in my church today. There’s an ability to notice something that’s not being done and jump in before the need is even expressed. When you run an event, you want to stock your team with that type of person.

Leaders today need good eyes. They need to be visionary, and they need to be servants — people with the agility and flexibility to see a need and respond. So, where do we find those qualities in the next generation? As Steve Moore and Tim Elmore remind us, we can look for people who are already serving somewhere. We can look for people who look at challenges and see opportunity. We can look for initiative.

As I mentioned before, we can also look for people who are others-focused, who “watch the hands” of both their managers and their direct reports. They look for opportunities to empower and develop others. They give assignments and then invert the hierarchical pyramid to support their staff in the job they’ve been asked to do. They are quick to give credit to their staff or team for the success they might enjoy.

If you’re looking for servant leaders, start with character. Promote from among your servants.

Michelle Braden, president of MSBCoach, did a webinar in January where she listed another list of qualities to identify and develop in future leaders. I just rediscovered my notes from that presentation, and I think her submissions are good additions to our list of seeds:

  • Interpersonal skills – Do they show self-awareness, show good emotional intelligence and use their strengths?
  • Ability to deal with complex problems – and do they show flexibility in how they deal with them?
  • Ability to develop and inspire others – Are they others-focused? Do they value collaboration?
  • Hunger to learn – Are they curious, questioning and aspiring for more? Are they open to people speaking into their life?
  • Visionary – Do they show an interest in the big picture, demonstrate early-stage strategic thinking?
  • Introspective – Do they think before they act? Do they talk about the importance of an integrated life? Are they results-oriented… for the right reasons? What are their motivations?
  • Courage – Do they have the bility to take a stand? Are they willing to take a risk and stand by it?
  • Ability to recover – Can they take the heat and handle pushback? Do they understand the process to recover from failure?
  • Influence – Do they lead out of relationship, without needing a title?

Mmmm. Good stuff here. Again, I’ll save my comments for later posts, but let me add one more from personal observation:

  • A new interest in taking themselves seriously

How about you? What early seeds of leadership have you observed? We’re getting a pretty comprehensive list here.

It’s been another quarter, so time for another update on the books I’ve read:

  • Master Leaders, by George Barna
  • A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller
  • Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath
  • FYI: For Your Improvement, by Michael M. Lombardo

I’m currently reading:

  • The Divine Commodity, by Skye Jethani
  • Forgotten God, by Francis Chan
  • The Dark Side of Leadership (I set this one aside and need to get back to it)
  • The Two Towers, by J.R. Tolkien (to my boys)

On my nightstand to read next:

  • Something in fiction. Didn’t Grisham write something recently? The comments from last time strongly urged me to diversify my reading list.
  • Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath
  • The Missional Leader, by Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk
I think the one I’m most excited about is my devotional for the year: Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, by Bobby Gross. I have a heavy dose of Anglican in my Presby-Baptist upbringing, so I have an appreciation of and periodic exposure to a variety of kinds of liturgy but no real knowledge of the Christian calendar.
Tomorrow I will begin celebrating Lent for the first time, and I’m excited by the prospect. In fact, I’m trying to determine what I should fast.
  • Watching sports? That would probably be the most costly, with the Olympics on now (and my pending visit to the Olympic city) and March Madness on the horizon.
  • Facebook? That might be good. Costly, but I’m not totally addicted. I would lament the ability to maintain relationships there… in fact, that’s probably not something I’m willing to set aside.
  • Desserts might be good, or maybe chocolate specifically?
  • How about caffeine or Coca Cola?
  • Perhaps I need to starve my news junky side. No web news or newspapers. That would be painful but good for me.

Let me loop back and unpack one of Tim Elmore’s seeds: leadership gifting.

In my experience with the Threshing Floor, I’ve seen all kinds of potential in leaders. Leadership is seldom positional at its beginning, though I’ll grant that some didn’t know they were leaders until they were thrust into the deep end. More often, the thing to look for is an interest in, gifting for or calling to leadership. I blogged on the subject last year, focusing more on interests and abilities.

But how do you identify leadership gifting? What are its earliest seeds? Does someone who’s gifted necessarily know it? In my experience, they don’t always know it, and it takes someone alert enough to recognize the signs. To show a lot of patience with a young person who asks lots of questions. To allow failure — even encourage it — in someone who shows a lot of initiative and then take the time to debrief and stir them to try again. To spot a learner who’s unafraid of feedback or even seeks it, and then to reward it with well-thought-out, specific feedback.

I remember a few years ago I sought out the opportunity to work with a collection of individuals that was discouraged but talented. When I considered taking this position, I looked specifically at one young leader who had a huge amount of passion and an amazing ability to encourage others, but for some reason rubbed some people the wrong way. He had a reputation for success, but was sometimes too quick to make an end run if he ran into an obstacle. I think it’s safe to say that some in leadership considered him a thorn in their side. Yet when I moved on to another position, his potential won out; he ended up moving up to take some of my responsibilities.

At one point I sent him to a week-long leadership event that utilized an anonymous 360 review. I decided to be very specific in my feedback, believing that to move to the next level there were some things he needed to work on and sensing that he would approach this opportunity with a hunger to learn. In talking with him afterwards, he thanked me for the feedback and suggestions I had made. He knew exactly which comments came from me. Why? Because he knew I would always be completely honest with him, and my comments stood out among the feedback he’d received.

Now, this was an individual who knew he was a leader. I’d love to hear your stories about how you spot leadership gifting in someone who doesn’t recognize their gifts.

The third item on Steve Moore’s list caught my attention. It reminded me of an essay by Reidy Associates on Encouraging Reluctant Leaders that explored the reasons leaders don’t step up, blaming the “hero myth” for a lot of the damage. Reidy starts with a quote from Jerry Garcia:

“Somebody has to do something and it’s incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.” We don’t have to have all the skills, all the answers. We don’t have to have it figured out better than anyone else. We do need to see something that needs attention and be motivated enough to organize a response.

Let me repeat that last statement, because it’s as good a definition of leadership as I’ve heard in a while: someone who sees something that needs attention and is motivated enough to organize a response. As Reidy points out, many get into leadership out of necessity. “Action occurs when motivation is stronger than resistance or reticence.”

Let me give you a personal example. Over the last ten years, I noticed a number of incredibly-gifted young leaders suddenly decide to leave our organization. These were people that I was looking forward to serving shoulder-to-shoulder with, long into the future, and they were suddenly gone. I realized that if our young leaders didn’t stick around, we wouldn’t have the leadership we needed to see our vision completed.

It certainly wasn’t my responsibility, but someone needed to do something about it. As no one stepped up, my desperation grew. About three years ago, I decided to send out a pact to all the young leaders I knew. It contained four points:

  1. We will practice leading. We commit ourselves in community to develop and use that gift where God has placed us. “If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously” (Rom 12:8).
  2. We will be not be disqualified. We hold ourselves to a high standard of godliness. We will hold each other accountable for our actions. “Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (I Cor 9:27).
  3. We will step up. We will develop our gifts by accepting appropriate positions of responsibility and authority. We will encourage each other to consider new challenges. “If someone aspires to be an elder, he desires an honorable position” (I Tim 3:1).
  4. We will not give up. Working as younger generations in a Boomer environment, we know we will get discouraged at times. We will not give up without consulting with one or two other colleagues for encouragement and prayer. “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (I Tim 4:12).

We began the Threshing Floor community as a lunch discussion group, and it has since expanded to Facebook. In the three years since we began meeting, I’ve had eight conversations with people who approached me and said, “I promised I’d talk with someone before I did anything…” and then went on to share their frustrations. Only one regular Threshing Floor participant has left the organization.

It’s not just a Wycliffe need. When Steve Moore taught that breakout session on supporting young leaders, he struck a chord. At the end, a young African American lady from another mission was in tears as she said, “I’ve been so hungry for this kind of thing.” She confessed her frustration at being overlooked because of her age and her gender. That was the moment I realized that I’ve only scratched the surface with the breadth of these issues.

Back to the topic at hand. My road to leadership development started three years ago when I saw an unmet need, and I had to do something. The need isn’t gone; if anything, I’m still learning how big that need is.

In a Personnel Conference from The Mission Exchange a few years ago, Steve Moore listed in a breakout session a number of the factors he looks for in emerging leaders. Listed on a scale from the more obscured and foundational to the more obvious and experienced:

  • The reactive hypothetic. Marked by statements such as, “If I were in charge, I wouldn’t do it like that.”
  • Subversives. See my post on The thorn in your side.
  • Those who notice things others miss. I think servants and visionaries both have good eyes.
  • The intuitive functional. They have some leadership ability but can’t fully articulate why they do what they do.
  • Tentative operational. I’d say this is your classic reluctant leader: has some leadership competence but doesn’t have the confidence to label it “leadership.”
  • Proactive operational. Willing to take on challenges others won’t.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this list. I’ll let it go without comment and then post some separate thoughts on the subject matter.