Not Everyone Should Lead

In St Louis in September, I participated in a roundtable discussion on leadership development where Rick Sessoms of MentorLink made a great observation: If you give leadership training to someone who lacks character, you’re enabling their abuse of power. Training won’t fix heart issues; it will simply give better tools to someone who lacks integrity, making them better at their abuses.

Patrick Lencioni says some of the same kinds of things in his cautionary blog post, Not Everyone Should Lead. Here’s an excerpt:

Whenever I hear someone encourage all young people to become leaders, or better yet, when I hear a young person say glibly that he or she wants to be a leader someday, I feel compelled to ask the question “why?”

If the answer is “because I want to make a difference” or “I want to change the world,” I get a little skeptical and have to ask a follow-up question: “Why and in what way do you want to change the world?” If they struggle to answer that question, I discourage them from becoming a leader.

Why? Because a leader who doesn’t know why he or she wants to lead is almost always motivated by self-interest. Whether that manifests itself in terms of fame or money or power, it is a very dangerous thing.

Leaders need to recognize the requirements of leadership: people marked by humility, maturity, selflessness and vision and willing to bear the costs of loneliness, sacrifice and great personal risk.

For all emerging leaders reading this, I’ll close with Steven Sample’s challenge from The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership: Are you more interested in being the position or doing the position?

The thorn in your side

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.

How do you develop followers?

I’ve been in Atlanta this week at the Christian Leadership Alliance Conference. Here are a few relevant notes from a workshop by Wendy Johnson of Amor Ministries.

Point 1: How do established leaders need to change to lead Millennials?

Millennials don’t need to adapt to our world. We’re already in theirs, so we’re the ones that need to adapt. We’re trying to figure out how to use their technology and work in their cultural setting. We’re marketing and selling our product in their world. Therefore, it’s not their job to learn how to work in our culture. It’s our job to study them and adapt where necessary.

That’s an interesting point for me. What she’s saying is that a leader’s job is not to make other people conform to them and follow them, but to boldly make the changes so that followers will follow. Those changes might be personal or they might be corporate. Where do I need to change to adapt to leading Millennials? And where do I need to change my organization to gather Millennials to my cause?

Point 2: How can we create followers of Jesus Christ?

As leaders, we have the ability to shape our followers to be:

  • Faithful and loyal – These cannot be mandated, but leaders have the power to draw followers by their vulnerability and trust. We need to be loyal to them and allow them to make mistakes.
  • Obedient – We need to identify the boundaries that matter and hold our teams to them while allowing flexibility on the means. Millennials will follow the rules if we recognize their methods and processes are different, not wrong.
  • Last – Leadership doesn’t necessarily happen from the front.
  • Open – Leaders will know everything about their team. Will we be open in return? If you lie to your followers, you’re done.
  • Willing – We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for sacrifice. If we hold to the essentials but give up the how, we’ll get what we ask for and more.

I like this idea of follower development. Wendy said that it’s easier to discuss followership than leadership, because the latter is so hard to define. Leaders have the ability to build on the strengths of our followers and to shape our followers into incredibly effective teams. There’s more to think about here. I’ll come back to it in the days ahead.

An elusive breed of potential leaders

Time after time, I’ve run into people my age or younger who have leadership gifts that remain hidden. I’m not necessarily just referring to the long-established art of unearthing leadership gifts in people and bringing those to light. The part that disturbs me is when young leaders know they have leadership gifts but dodge the mantle of leadership.

“If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously” (Rom 12:8). I firmly believe that those who have leadership gifts have a responsibility. Rather than squander it or suppress it, they need to develop it and practice leading.

Why would people seek to bury their leadership gifts? There are lots of reasons I’m going to dig into over the next few posts. Before I do that, we should agree on what a reluctant leader is.

The internet is a goldmine. Of all places, I found a wonderful article from the Natural Science Department at Manatee Community College in Bradenton, FL. Perhaps in scouring the world for new and endangered species, they discovered the reluctant leader. Check out this quote from Dr. Anthony and Crystal Gambino’s essay: “Untapped Potential: In Search of the Reluctant Leader.”

There exists an elusive breed of potential leaders. Most of these potential leaders will go unnoticed; very few will ever reach their leadership potential. They serve out of view and live in the shadows of others. It is this existence, in the shadow, that will serve them well if they are found and developed into the leaders they could be. The question is how do you find such a potential leader, one that does their job, but gives the credit to those who they helped. They help others reach their potential by gently pushing from behind with words of encouragement. This potential leader should lead, but is reluctant to do so mainly because they see leaders as those who assign the work and then take the credit. In their mind this is the last thing they want to become. Finding a reluctant leader will take a keen eye for observation, nurturing with patience, equipping with knowledge and developing the future leader over time. Tapping into this untapped potential will be a personal investment with a high rate of return.

What are your reactions? Anything stand out to you?

A penetrating question

One of the other things Perry Noble asked young leaders pierced pretty deeply.

Are you more interested in being discovered or being developed?

Ouch. I had to do some self evaluation. Here are a few random follow up questions.

Do I feel deep down that I deserve that next step? If I arrive at the wrong conclusion, the result of my pride will be bitterness… and jealousy when others don’t notice my abilities. I recently started compiling a list of people who used to work for me but are now in higher positions than me. It was a good discipline, because it exposes my sin nature! I had to remind myself that those are successes. Perhaps I played a part in their development, even if the best thing I did was get out of the way and not hold them back.

Do I have a realistic picture of myself? I completed a 360 review last summer that even looked back on some previous jobs. My memories of my abilities and acomplishments in Canada were dashed as I read the feedback of two colleagues who pointed out some real flaws. Amazing to think that these two were among my biggest encouragers and supporters. When they looked at me, they obviously saw my potential more than my abilities. Thank God I’ve grown a lot since those days.

Am I a lifelong learner? Many have said that the first step of leadership is leading yourself. After all, the first and easiest thing I can control is myself. As I mentioned in a previous post, even those at the top don’t have it all figured out. I pray that when I’m 60, I’m just as devoted to trying new things. I pray that I continue to read and listen to things that challenge me and disagree with me. I pray that I still learn from others — even those with less experience than me.

Leadership Development programs aren’t exactly new

At the Catalyst Conference in Atlanta a few months ago, Perry Noble pointed out that some of Moses’ best work was done in the wilderness, where no one saw his brilliance.

That thought launched me on a study of some of the young leaders in the Bible and how they developed. One of my observations is that there are a number of leadership development programs in the Bible. The leaders who deliberately looked for and developed young people with leadership potential were not exactly hallmarks of exemplary leadership themselves: King Saul and Nebuchadnezzar. The former included spear dodging as part of his program and the latter recruited by kidnapping and tested via a fiery furnace.

My wife says that Esther was singled out in a development program. Not sure that was exactly the same kind of program.