Gifted to lead

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.

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Romans 12 – criticism part II

My pastor, Chan Kilgore, once said that people never build monuments to critics. Is that really true? When he said it, I immediately thought of a lot of the figures in the Revolutionary War. Thomas Payne and Paul Revere were pretty serious critics. But there’s a difference between protesters who take potshots and protesters who do something about their beliefs. And victors always get to define the terms. Instead of “critic” and “traitor,” we in the United States prefer “forefather” and “patriarch.”

The question I want to consider is: why should a leader bless those who persecute him? Verse 20 gives one answer: to heap “burning coals” on them. It seems to me that alone could serve as a nasty motivation for “kindness.” But is that what this passage is about? Of course, the Bible preaches a countercultural message: seek genuine blessing for your critics. Why?

Point number 2: critics are essential in the life of a leader. Many gurus have written about the inability of senior leaders to get accurate assessments; candor is inversely proportional to level of position. Therefore, if a leader can receive it, the poignant commentary of a critic is essential because of his immunity to persuasion. He provides that “alternative” viewpoint we need so much.

I have a challenge for you. Next time you’re persecuted, ask yourself, “What if they’re right?” It could cast some light onto your blind spots.

An Old Testament example takes it one step further. In 2 Samuel 16, David’s son Absalom has taken the throne by force, and David is forced to flee from Jerusalem. While David is at a low point, an opportunistic descendant of David’s predecessor begins throwing stones and verbal lobs, claiming that David is getting a taste of his own medicine. David’s men want vengeance, but he rebukes them:

My own son is trying to kill me. Doesn’t this relative of Saul have even more reason to do so? Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it. And perhaps the Lord will see that I am being wronged and will bless me because of these curses today.

David shows incredible restraint, perspective and confidence in God’s Sovereignty. I think we’d all do well as leaders to respond the same way. What if God has given you a critic for a specific purpose? If you could see criticis that way, wouldn’t you pray for them, seek to bless them tangibly and work to overcome them by doing what’s right?

Lest we idolize David too much, let’s look at the rest of the story in 1 Kings 2:8-9. Years later, when David gives his final instructions to another son who is taking the throne legitimately, he admits that Shimei stuck in his craw. David tells Solomon,

I swore by the Lord that I would not kill him. But that oath does not make him innocent. You are a wise man, and you will know how to arrange a bloody death for him.

Don’t we wish! If only we could all keep our hands clean and leave it to our sons to clean up for us. Not sure how to respond to that one. It certainly speaks to the deep, irreversable pain a critic can bring to a king. It’s easy to do the right thing for a while, but difficult to let go of the feelings surrounding the experience.

Romans 12 – self awareness

3 Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.

It happens every year. A young lady shows up on American Idol, sings her heart out… and the judges cringe. When someone informs her that she’s bad, she appears genuinely shocked.* Why? Because her entire life, she’s been told that she can sing. She has never received honest feedback until Simon Cowell.

* Go with me here. I know it’s all rigged.

Do you have a Simon Cowell in your life? Okay, bad example. Do you have someone in your life who has the privilege and authority in your life to tell you the truth? Paul had the ability to say this to the Roman church because of his role as spiritual father and apostle. Perhaps for you it’s a pastor or mentor or Proverbs-worthy friend, but you need people to give you an honest assessment, particularly as you move up in leadership.

What if you’re not really as good a leader as you think you are? This is a tough question, so take a minute to think about it.

I’ve read many times that when a superstar executive is plucked from a team by headhunters to fill a new leadership position in another company, they can’t reach the same success in the new setting. Why? It’s the drumbeat I’ve been saying for some time now: leadership is contextual. You are likely only as good as the team you’re surrounded by and the ideal match of your abilities to the challenges and opportunities you’re facing. Before you take credit for things that God has given you, read Daniel 4 as a warning from King Nebuchadnezzar.

I believe self-management is the first requirement of leadership. The Bible is clear that if you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others. The first step, then, is to know yourself. Know what you’re good at and what you’re not. Leaders have as few blindspots as possible and know their weaknesses well so they can lead to their strengths and staff to their weaknesses. But it’s true that the higher you move up in leadership, the more difficult it is to keep from living in a coccoon. There’s no one to tell you the truth, and it’s difficult to stop believing your own press.

The sticking point in these verses to me is that line, “measuring yourself by the faith God has given us.” What does that mean? For starters, if faith is the assurance of things unseen, then our plum line is not anything readily apparent to us. It’s not the media or our kiss-up friends. Our plum line is how God sees us. He’s the one who can see our insecurities and our coping mechanisms. He’s the one who sees past our false bravado. He’s the one who sees how our “courageous decision” was really just a guess, and this time it worked. He knows all that… and more.

Yet he also knows our full operating potential, because he’s the manufacturer. I think God believes in us. When we consider others better than ourselves and are quick to give credit to others for the success we enjoy, I think we’ll uncover a lot of the potential he built in.

Matthew Henry has a great admonition to sum up my last two posts (and this is a nice counterpoint to my recent posts on ambition):

We must not say, I am nothing, therefore I will sit still, and do nothing; but, I am nothing in myself, and therefore I will lay out myself to the utmost, in the strength of the grace of Christ.