If you haven’t had the opportunity to read my previous blog post, “Humbled!” I suggest you take the time to read that one as context for this post. In that post, I asked for your stories about failure. I want to share my own example here and draw a few conclusions.

I was studying engineering when God showed me very clearly that I needed to change my major and move toward a career in missions. How was it so clear? I was failing Physics and another class foundational to engineering. At the same time, I heard a missionary share about the huge need for graphic design in missions. I had always played with design, but never thought of it as a career, let alone in missions. I couldn’t get it out of my head that I needed to change majors and change schools, and that graphic design was my path to missions.

While many find the idea of a “calling” somewhat mysterious, for me it was more practical. God clearly closed a door and opened another. At the point of failure of my plans, when I was ready to listen, God used a missionary to challenge me.

Shortly after we graduated, my wife and I attended the Urbana student mission conference. While visiting the mission booths, I found out Wycliffe Bible Translators had a huge need for graphic design, helping create displays, magazines, brochures, calendars and websites. But more than the need for my skills, the mission of Wycliffe grabbed me. This was an organization marked by perseverance, going into the difficult places, advocating for the marginalized, the minority languages that were so easily overlooked.

So my wife and I joined Wycliffe and took our first assignment in Canada. I managed a small team of designers, and put my energy into Wycliffe Canada’s award-winning photojournalistic magazine.

As I think back, I got pretty comfortable and even somewhat cocky in my position and abilities. I had won some design awards for Wycliffe’s Word Alive magazine, and I was able to “leverage” my abilities to take a similar position with Wycliffe USA, an organization about ten times the size of its Canadian counterpart. I remember thinking about the expansion of my influence to a larger constituency.

So my family and I moved down to Orlando and began the most difficult two years of my life.

A larger organization requires more specialization, and my job changed to the point that it played away from my strengths for big-picture thinking and ideas. I got buried in minutia and I found myself boxed in. My frustration grew, and I took it out on my boss, rebelling against her leadership. I lost trust and the hole I was in got deeper. I’m not at all proud of the way I handled myself, and I fully deserved the words my boss gave me near the end: “You’re gifted at a lot of things, but management isn’t one of them. Maybe you should find a job that doesn’t require management.”

I suppose I was gifted in a lot of things. But I was taking credit for success that wasn’t mine to take. Many of the ideas I was so proud of came in moments of unexpected inspiration. Most of my successes were done in the context of team, not solo. I was not very self aware.

This job came to an end when my boss sent me to a leadership conference. Given her thoughts on my leadership ability, it was a funny place to send me, but it turned out to be the best money she ever spent. An hour into the conference, I heard these momentous words: “If you don’t like your job, quit!” So I did. I was walking a fine line because I didn’t want to quit Wycliffe. I was still committed to the vision. But I walked away from graphic design. I was at rock bottom, not sure if anyone would want a washed-up designer, not sure I could find another job in this organization I loved.

At the bottom of my spiral of despair, as I debated my future, a senior vice president asked me to work for him as a project manager. I suppose if I’d learned anything from those two difficult years, it was project management, so I jumped at this surprise opportunity. He pulled me up from my knees and brought me into the president’s office. I discovered the amazing world of executive administration and big-picture strategy. I loved it! But I still had a lot to learn about management, so I took a 5-year detour, leading teams at various levels before returning to administration in a role responsible for developing leaders in the organization. I had learned from my experiences and had developed a soft heart for young leaders.

Like Peter, my philosophy of leadership is very much shaped by my failures:

  • I love to take on “projects.” Several times I have taken on a staff member whose recent career was marred by a bad performance appraisal, because I see potential in them and suspect that they were in some way a victim of circumstance. If I feel like the situation I can put them in will lead to success, I’ll take a risk on them.
  • I don’t believe firing is the worst thing you can do to someone. Letting them stay and spread their misery and discontent is worse for them and for the people around them.
  • I lead as an art director. I surround myself with great people who can do things I can’t, then paint a vision and let them add their creativity and input. The result is usually better than if I did it myself. So I have a much more realistic view of myself—my strengths and weaknesses and passions. I try to do what only I can do, and empower the people around me to use their strengths.
  • I look for talent in people across various industries. If a graphic designer could make a project manager and eventually a president who practices “design thinking,” then how could other skills translate into new situations?
  • I don’t confuse my job with my identity. I’m in at least my third career since I joined Wycliffe 17 years ago, and it’s been over a dozen years since I held the same job more than two years. So hold your passion, vision and calling more tightly than what you do.

Three years ago a search committee contacted me. They were looking for a young leader who wasn’t afraid to lead change, who had a track record of developing young leaders and who could turn Wycliffe Canada around from some significant areas of decline. When my wife heard what they were looking for, it was so clear to her that they were looking for me. “We’re moving to Canada,” she said. God had prepared me for this precise job at this precise time.

In my own story, I see a resemblance to Peter’s journey. Throughout each step, I see the Spirit working behind the scenes, shaping and preparing in order to accomplish his purposes. It causes me to take myself less seriously and to say with a twinkle in my eye that it’s God’s sense of humour that he’d put a graphic designer in charge of a Bible translation organization.

Roy Eyre, B.F.A.

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I intentionally concluded my last post with a dangling proposition: “Knowing who you are is the greatest platform for leadership.” I was hoping someone would challenge that. I’m going to challenge it preemptively.

Perhaps the biggest proof of Moses’ incredible relationship with God was his ability to argue with God. I don’t have that kind of relationship with God. I’m not sure I have the guts to push God like Moses did. While a number of arguments are recorded, the most obvious one is in Exodus 3 and 4, where Moses tries to throw off his calling.

Here’s the important thing to note: most of Moses’ objections are identity issues. “Who am I?” “How will they know You sent me?” “What if they won’t believe me?” “I’m not very good!” “Please send someone else!”

God’s responses are about identity as well — His identity. Here’s how Barton puts it in Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership:

But God answers all of Moses’ objections (and ours!) with variations on a single theme — the promise of God’s presence in the crucible of leadership.

“I will be with you.” “I AM has sent me.” “I will work mighty signs through you.” “Who made your mouth?”

I still stand by my assertion in my last post. But that statement is incomplete. Knowing who God is is the greatest platform for leadership.

Recently (and finally), I began reading Ruth Haley Barton’s Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. Judging from the first third, I know it is going to end up near the top of my list of leadership books and will be worth a re-read down the road. She builds her book around the story of Moses, which suits me fine because I’ve always been intrigued by his leadership model.

I never saw it before, but Moses is a classic third culture kid. He was Hebrew-born, an identity forgotten in his childhood but that he longed to retrieve as an adult. He was raised as an Egyptian, an identity so woven into him that he doesn’t deny that label when first introduced to the priest of Midian. Born into poverty and slavery, he was raised in the home of Pharoah. His education and wealth was surely both a huge privilege and a weight. Barton concludes that “He lived between two worlds and yet was not fully at home in either place.”

As an outsider both among his own people and among the Egyptians who raised him, he probably wrestled every day with issues related to his identity. Should he fit into the environment in which he had been raised and follow the path marked out for him there? Or should he identify with his own people and try to make it by those rules instead? Neither one was a very good choice. Either one would bring about emptiness and loss.

In many ways, I can identify with Moses as a Canadian and an American who is really neither Canadian nor American. In reflecting on my own path into leadership, I think the pivotal moment for me was my transplant at age eight from the suburbs of Toronto to the suburbs of Atlanta. I remember struggling with the question of whether to assimilate or hold stubbornly to my culture that first year. I remember wearing the wrong clothes, pronouncing words the wrong way and knowing nothing of “importance” — usually pop-culture references that went over my head. Fortunately, I was a quick study. I chose assimilation and blended in successfully. However, that sense of imbalance as an “outsider” was a feeling I never wanted to experience again. I’ll bet I could trace much of my leadership style to that stage in my journey.

However, I can see the benefits of third-culturehood. Putting myself in Moses’ shoes, I can sense the conclusion that eventually began to formulate in his mind. The Hebrews needed rescuing. Who else was in a better position to be the solution? Why else had he had such a unique upbringing? He was born for such a time as this, and God had gifted him in leadership. In addition, confidence and power had likely been built into him every day in Pharaoh’s home and schools. His sense of justice began to stir as he explored his roots. The mantle of “savior” had fallen on him. All he needed was opportunity.

Days after the glorious failure of his salvation initiative, Moses traveled alone in the wilderness, forced to confront the ugliness in himself. There was the raw anger that blazed out of control. He hadn’t intended to kill the guard. There was the lack of support from the Hebrews. Didn’t they see that he was appointed for this task? There was the loss of privilege that he hated and yet was so attached to. There was the shame of failure. He was through with leadership.

Over months and years in Midian, God began to peel away the coping mechanisms, the assumptions, the scabs and calluses from his wounds until he could come face to face with his core issue of inadequacy and pain. There’s a moment that sums up his 40 year journey. Barton puts it this way:

He fathered a son, and it became a touchstone in his life, an opportunity to name something about himself with more courage and realism than ever before. When his son was born, he named him Gershom because ‘I have been an alien residing in a foreign land’ (Exodus 2:22).

As a leader, what do you do with your upbringing? Like it or not, you will lead out of it. Anything else would be disingenuous and unsustainable. Suppressed pain and experiences will eventually emerge when you face crisis, complexity, loneliness, betrayal and weariness. Better to embrace what shaped you and lead from there.

That means seeing — or waiting for — the right opportunity. Moses wasn’t wrong about being the “savior.” He was wrong about doing it in his own strength and timing. Only after his 40-year education could he see how the pieces fit together. Only after arguing vociferously but ineffectively with God could he embrace the idea of a second attempt.

That means leading out of brokenness. It means allowing God to do a deep work to redeem your pain. It also means stepping out in faith when you don’t feel confident. Barton quotes Os Guinness, who offers a unique spin on the idea of a leadership calling:

Calling is not only a matter of being and doing what we are but also of becoming what we are not yet but are called by God to be.

Don’t wait to be the person you think God needs. Believe the One “who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” (Romans 4:17)

That means leading out of power. Counterintuitively, there’s real power in leading out of who you are. You might not like what you see in the mirror, but opening your soul and leading from who God made you to be is a powerful starting point. Barton points out that Moses was equipped to lead the Hebrews through 40 years in the wilderness only because he had emerged from 40 years in the wilderness.

There’s a remarkable current-day example. Wess Stafford, president of Compassion International, says he got the job because he cared about children the most. His own story of abuse is remarkable and the driver behind all that he has accomplished. He admits, “I am never more than 10 seconds away from tears.” His willingness to put his own pain out for all to see has given him a platform to accomplish amazing things.

I remember hearing Stafford speak at Willow Creek Leadership Summit in 2009. He urged leaders to spend 30 minutes in front of a mirror, taking the time to ask yourself some tough questions. Who am I? What do I care about? Why do I lead what I lead? Is my passion driven by pain or success?

Knowing who you are is the greatest platform for leadership.

…whatever their age. Leadership gifts don’t automatically grow with experience. Two things bother me, three get under my skin:

  • people without leadership gifts in positions of leadership simply because they’ve “put in their years”
  • people struggling with incredible leadership gifts in a setting that doesn’t allow them to put those gifts to work
  • and people that have leadership gifts but bury them.

It’s time we gave more honor to leadership as a profession, a gifting and a calling and let leaders lead right out of the gate.

<end of rant>

William Pitt the Younger details the life of “a penniless twenty-three-year-old with no previous experience in office” who was elected to England’s House of Commons in 1782. Within 18 months, he was prime minister. It’s a story that captured my interest since seeing a rendition of it in the movie Amazing Grace. At one point, author William Hague — a current member of parliament — asks a question I want to consider as well:

How was it that opinion in the eighteenth century would accept youthful seniority to an extent inconceivable two centuries later?

Was it really very different back then? He notes that 100 members of parliament in the early 1780s were under age thirty. 100 under thirty?!! It wasn’t just in politics. “The number of young prodigies in many disparate fields was far greater than it is today.” For example:

  • Alexander Pope wrote his first verses aged twelve, and was famous at twenty-three;
  • Henry Fielding’s plays were being performed in London when he was twenty-one;
  • Adam Smith was a Professor of Logic at twenty-eight;
  • the evangelist George Whitefield was preaching to crowds of tens of thousands in London when aged twenty-five;
  • Isaac Newton had commenced his revolutionary advances in science in the previous century at the age of twenty-five;
  • and Mozart had composed symphonies when eight years old and completed tours of Europe at the ripe old age of fifteen.

I guess we could point to Mark Zuckerberg and other internet pioneers, or Hewlett, Packard, Dell, Gates and Jobs in the generation before. But there seems to be more resistance to young leaders today, especially in established fields, businesses, organizations… or politics. The fact is that in most cases where a young leaders reaches high position, it’s because he or she founded the company.

Hague wonders aloud what was unique in that culture that so much was accomplished by people so young. Why did they get so much greater opportunity and empowerment? He explores a number of ideas, including the influence of aristocracy in bestowing “instant credibility.” Perhaps the most obvious example was a group of twentysomething monarchs in Europe, but it extended to people like William and Thomas Pitt building on their father’s name and reknown. It wasn’t just privilege; it was also early exposure. William Pitt the Younger gained incredible oratory skills at the feet of his prime minister father.

Those were important factors, but I think Hague nails it in his conclusion:

Perhaps the greater risk of early death produced an impulse of young brilliance, and certainly the intensive use of private tutors added to it.

To put it in today’s terms, the two greatest factors were urgency and mentoring. We no longer fear death before age 40. To require a young person to put in time in a job before taking leadership is a luxury they didn’t enjoy back then. On the other side of the coin, young people felt like they had only a few good years to contribute, so they gave it their all very quickly. Pitt was an extreme case, much of his brevity self-imposed. His physician concluded that he “died of old age at forty-six as much as if he had been ninety.”

Pitt’s private tutor was a man who would become a prominent minister in the Church of England. His father was prime minister. These mentors shaped a young man who dreamed of parliament as his next step, straight out of college.

My question today is this: Is there room in your organization for young leaders? In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page challenges how leaders are selected.

The typical pattern for moving people into leadership positions must be changed. First, nice people who are good at what they do are thrust or promoted into a position of leadership, without regard for their ability, or sometimes even their desire, to perform in a leadership capacity. Secondly, they are evaluated on their ability to produce short-term results for the organization and finally, if at all, on their ability to lead people. Yet this ability to lead others is the long-term basis on which those results can be sustained or improved upon.

If leadership gifting, competence and calling are all clear at an early age, why aren’t more organizations willing to allow young people to work in their sweet spots rather than promoting good practicioners with seniority? Experience in a field is simply not the same as leadership gifting. So, do we feel an urgency to find the best leaders available, to pour into them and to give them space? Until we do, we’re not going to gain the benefits of this generation’s William Pitts, Adam Smiths and George Whitefields.

At Wycliffe USA, there’s a group of young leaders who meet together for mutual encouragement, accountability and to challenge each other. The goal of The Threshing Floor is to discuss issues of leadership and prompt each other to action. In meeting with this group twice a month for the last two years, I’ve noticed that there are differences between having leadership gifts, leadership interests and leadership calling. Reluctance seems to happen when one or more of those characteristics is missing.

(Notice that I didn’t list leadership positions. I think all of us can think of someone who has a position but lacks the other three.)

Let me give a couple of examples. For starters, I’ve watched a handful of people who come in streaks. They come for a while, then disappear. After a while they return. Why? I’ve concluded that they are intrigued by the idea of leadership. They’re students of it; they like to watch leadership in action up close. But every time they try setting out for the deep end themselves, they panic. Then they throw up their hands and stop pursuing leadership… for a while. Eventually that interest bubbles to the surface and they return.

So, do they just have leadership interests but no calling? Or no gifting? I’m not sure that’s it, because I’ve seen them influence people. I think they’re more comfortable following, except that they can’t simply follow. For some, I believe they perceive leadership gifts in themselves but they either haven’t found their niche or have failed gloriously the few times they’ve tried it.

What about the person who has leadership gifts and calling but never sought it? Consider Steve Murrell, pastor and author of The Reluctant Leader blog. The rationale for naming his blog is an interesting read. This sentence sums it up for me:

Maybe you never wanted to be a leader, but then you turned around and people seem to be following you. Scary.

Any reluctant leaders out there? What’s your story?

I wanted to call this blog The Reluctant Leader. But Steve Murrell already has a very good blog by that name. In fact, if you’re only going to read one blog, read that one. In fact, he even has a better reason for the name than I do.

I’m not a reluctant leader. In fact, ever since I was identified as a leader by my second grade teacher, I’ve been trying to live up to that label. (I hope I didn’t mishear him; maybe he said I was a “cheater” or a “reader.”)

I have a passion for leadership, and I love seeing others grow in their own awareness of leadership gifts. I find a lot of people in my generation have suppressed and latent leadership gifts. Some are interested in the idea of leadership but have failed gloriously when they tried it. Others are so skeptical of the leaders they know that they’d rather take potshots from the back row. And others have just never tried it or had it drawn out of them.

I remember in college when one of the quietest girls I ever met was asked to lead a small group Bible study. She was phenomenal and knew how to draw the introverts out. Leadership can be hiding anywhere, because leadership is influence. Everyone influences someone.

My passion and calling right now is to study what makes a good leader, how to draw out the best in the people I touch and to be a bridge to established leadership for these latent and emerging leaders.