The seeds of leadership

What should we look for in a potential leader who has not emerged yet?

Last year, Steve Murrell posted Tim Elmore’s list of traits he looks for in those he seeks to train in leadership:

  • gifted to lead
  • influential with people
  • fruitful even before they have a leadership position
  • trustworthy in small things
  • serving in some capacity already

This a a great starting point. The first one is a bit nebulous and probably becomes evident only as you look at the other bullets. The last three are certainly related. The idea is that leadership is scalable. Someone who uses relational and spiritual authority to bear fruit without the position is likely to be even more effective once they have positional authority. Jim Collins says as much in his monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors. So look for fruit, even in the smallest things.

I’m intrigued by the sports management business. Trades, drafts and coaching hires are compelling to me, because general managers are searching for hidden gems. You’ll often see a general manager trade “too much” for a pitcher who was average in the minor leagues or who had a losing record with another team. It’s evident that they see something they can work with in the middle of failure. That’s the job of an established leader: to mine for talent among those with less experience.

When you think of potential leaders in your setting, what are the seeds you look for?

Becoming foolish kings

My only angle in diversity is my age. One day I will wake up and discover that I’m an “older white male.” It’s my future, whether I like it or not, so I operate with some sense of urgency. Because age diversity is so tenuous, I spend a lot of my peer mentoring time encouraging other young people to step up and offer their gifts. Organizations need young people who are willing to use their leadership gifts!

But here’s the thing: we’re all destined to get “old.” I recall a talk by Mark Driscoll that drew my attention to a couple of obscure verses at the end of Ecclesiastes 4.

It is better to be a poor but wise youth than an old and foolish king who refuses all advice. Such a youth could rise from poverty and succeed. He might even become king, though he has been in prison. But then everyone rushes to the side of yet another youth who replaces him.  Endless crowds stand around him, but then another generation grows up and rejects him, too. So it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind. (NLT)

I think this parable has incredible relevance today for all those with titles and those who aspire to lead. Note that the spotlight in Solomon’s story is on the one who is rising, not the one who has made it. Solomon is not saying that it’s meaningless to aspire to lead; but he is saying that power is an illusion, and striving to hold onto it is like chasing the wind. By all means, take advantage of the moment that God has given you. Step up, express your voice and use your gifts.

But as you do, remember that it will be someone else’s turn far too quickly. All of us are destined to become foolish kings, when we find ourselves out of the limelight. There is always another generation rising up behind us. So hold power loosely, and spend at least part of your moment investing in the next generation.

The key to the parable is this: what makes a king foolish is the refusal to receive advice. There is no age limit to being a learner. Older, established leaders should make it a habit to keep young leaders around them. Perhaps the most valuable thing they bring to a team is the ability to understand the times. Mentoring should be two-way; there’s always something wise youth can teach established leaders.

I pray that whether I’m a young, emerging leader or an established leader, I will always be willing to learn from others. I pray that as a young leader, I won’t think of my own perspective more highly than I ought. And I pray that as my body ages, I will always reflect youthfulness in my attitude and mindset. As Douglas MacArthur puts it:

You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair.

The most elusive form of diversity

I think the most elusive form of diversity is age. You only have a limited window to capture the treasure of youth. If you wait to have all your doubts about a young leader’s maturity and experience resolved, he or she will not bring you the diversity you need. You’ll have to move to the next young candidate, who will likely bring the same concerns. The fact is that young leaders are high risk, high reward. Sure, they won’t be the most experienced candidate, but they have more room to grow. More upside, bigger dreams and fewer fears.

In his most recent book, George Barna points out that Jimmy Blanchard became CEO of Synovus Financial Corp when he was 29! How on earth could a company like that turn over their operation to such a young leader? You know he wasn’t the most experienced candidate they looked at. They obviously wanted the energy, ideas, passion for people and leadership potential that he and Synovus became known for. It paid off in big ways. Not only did he oversee the period of greatest growth, but they’ve been voted America’s #1 company to work for.

What are the things you look for in emerging leaders? While you may not get a long resume, there are signs of future success. I’m going to spend some time on that topic in the following months. I think it’s worth exploring, because as Boomers get closer to retirement, they’re going to have to turn over leadership to a generation that’s about half their size. Leadership is therefore going to be handed to two generations, meaning leaders are going to be younger.

One final thought. Eventually, every young leader risks becoming what they hate most: an established leader holding onto power too long. Therefore the most important trait to cultivate in young leaders if you want age diversity is the desire and ability to develop others. Maybe I’m biased, but I think if you want any kind of diversity in your organization, that’s the most important trait to have in all levels of leadership. Looking for that ability should be part of all hiring and promotion thought processes.

Development should never be an add-on. If you’ve put the right people in leadership positions, they do it naturally and organically. The next generation benefits, ethnic minorities benefit, the organization benefits. Everyone benefits when you have developers in your organization. Just ask Synovus.

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.

Lending your influence

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.

Earned authority

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.”