“For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers…”

I’ve said often that my goal is, like David in Acts 13:36, to fulfill the purpose of God in my generation. What is that purpose? I don’t think anyone will be able to say definitively until my funeral what that purpose was and whether I fulfilled it. It’s the kind of assessment that’s best defined via epitaph. In one sense, it’s out of my hands whether I accomplish that purpose. It becomes a driving force, a vision for my life. But in another sense, I have the ability to prevent it from happening. I can simply reject God’s purpose for my life and my generation. As my pastor preached through Luke 7 recently, I shuddered at these terrifying words from verse 30:

“…but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves…”

I can’t imagine a more horrible epitaph. Why and how did the religious leaders of the day manage to reject God’s purpose? How could people in such strategic positions miss the most important thing? What warnings are there for me? For us?

First, let me borrow from my pastor in laying out the context. John the Baptist, after sitting in prison, began to express doubts about whether his cousin Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus answered, not by rebuking his doubt or offering intellectual proof, but by reminding him of the messianic scriptures he fulfilled daily as he healed the sick, exorcised the possessed and gave sight to the blind. Then he turned on the watching crowd to cover John’s back and challenge their understanding of the eccentric prophet. The crowd responded in two ways. Those who were baptized by John “declared God just.” Those who were not tried to justify themselves. And in so doing, they rejected God’s purpose.

So, where did the latter — the religious leaders and lawyers — go wrong?

  1. They weren’t responsive. The very next point in the verse is that they had not been baptized by John. We know they heard his message but didn’t buy it. Jesus went on to compare them to grumpy kids who don’t join in the others’ games. They didn’t laugh with those who laughed or mourn with those who mourned. I think the issue was distance. They looked at the world from the outside, afraid to get their hands and robes dirty with real life. May I never fall prey to the traps of reading the Bible for knowledge, paying more attention to the rules of religion than to the needs of widows and orphans, or analyzing rather than empathizing and sympathizing.
  2. They had to be right. While the people responded to Jesus’ message about John by concluding that God’s plan was proved right, the Pharisees rejected God’s plan. They were so sure of themselves that they found ground to fault and judge anyone else’s beliefs or practice. John the Baptist was too much of a teetotaler, so he must be possessed. Jesus was too comfortable with culture, so he must be an addict. The Pharisees’ heart attitude of rigidity and self righteousness caused them to miss God’s plan for them. Instead, may I be one who holds my opinions loosely, as one looking through a glass darkly, and may I be as much of a learner at 69 as I was at 29.
  3. They were blind. The proof Jesus offered to John about his claim to be Messiah was available to the Pharisees as well. Elijah was in their midst. Jesus was in their midst. But they missed the point. If a leader is not one to understand the times and know what to do, then he needs people around him who fill that role. Many of the kings in the Old Testament — even the heathen ones — knew this (see 1 Chronicles 12:32Esther 1:13Daniel 10:1). A leader can’t afford to miss an opportunity like the one before the Pharisees. May I have eyes to see what God is doing, the ears to listen to those who see it before I do and the courage to put actions behind my beliefs once I know what needs doing.

As I said, I can’t say with confidence what God’s purpose is for me and my generation. But I see a door open before me. I can tell you that a significant challenge has been laid at the feet of this generation: the Word of God in every language in this generation. I would love for people at my funeral to say that I helped lead my generation to see that challenge completed.

That’s my prayer for myself. After all, David himself prayed in faith, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me… Do not forsake the work of your hands.”  (Psalm 138:8)

James 3 continues, saying godly ambition must be pure and sincere. Other versions use some helpful synonyms. Ambition must integrate as part of a holy life. It must be honest, without hypocrisy. The Message says it’s not two-faced.

What does pure ambition look like? Purity means it’s in its original, uncorrupted state. Dave Harvey says that we’re all wired to pursue glory. In the first days of creation, we existed in perfect relationship with our Creator, seeking his glory alone. If God was lifted up, we had everything we needed. But we perverted our original design, turning our focus to ourselves. (I say “we” because I’m convinced today we would do the same thing as our pansy ancestors Adam and Eve.) It’s impossible to make something pure that has been corrupted. Think about snow. Once its dirty, there’s no making it white and powdery again. Or salt. As Jesus said, how can you make unsalty salt salty again? So even when we attempt great things for God’s glory, we should suspect ourselves. Our motives are seldom as pure as we want them to be. We just can’t have pure ambition on our own.

Ambition should be sincere and honest. I come from an organization that loves the leader who stands up and says, “I never wanted this job, but since you chose me, I’ll do the best I can.” We love humility and, conversely, we suspect signs of ambition. In contrast, I have a healthy suspicion of platitudes. I admit I love the ideal of an unsought promotion and of a leader emerging from the rough. It makes a great story. But two problems stick in my mind. If a leader really has no ambition and never sought a position, then he has never prepared himself for higher levels of leadership. Who’s to say the reluctant leader is a lifelong learner or takes leadership responsibility seriously if they didn’t want the job? On the other hand, if a leader is saying that deceitfully, then I have bigger issues. False humility may well be the tip of the iceberg, a sign of darker things lying below public view.

In contrast, godly ambition is never two-faced. I heard a story that Abraham Lincoln was once charged with being two-faced. He responded, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” It’s far better for a leader to admit their ambition… and shift it toward the cause. Better to be open about ambition. When it’s on the table, there’s a certain amount of accountability, because leadership is a private matter lived out in public, as the authors of The 52nd Floor put it. Ambitious leaders need help to keep their aspirations pointed in the right direction.

Moses is a great example for us. In Exodus 2, we eavesdrop on a dialog that exposes Moses’ real fear of leadership. He is as reluctant a leader as you’ll find. But it’s not from pure motives; it’s fear based on his failure in Exodus 1, when his unharnessed, misguided ambition led to murder. The second time, he needs convincing that God is in the call and will give him everything he needs to lead. The next couple of books in the Old Testament portray a leader with mature ambition, deeply concerned with God’s glory. Multiple times Moses appeals to God to make his Name great or to act on behalf of Israel “for the sake of your Name.” Sure, he still struggles with the purity of his ambition, getting angry with Israel, breaking priceless handwritten tablets and smacking rocks with his staff, but Moses’ name becomes great only as he pursues God’s Name with his whole heart and allows God to show his great power rather than trying on his own effort to save Israel.

In this world, our leaders may never achieve pure ambition, but the pursuit of it is an admirable trait.

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.

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.

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.

16 And don’t think you know it all!

…or act like you know it all. I remember working at Pace Warehouse when I was in college. There was one area of the store that I devoutly avoided. If a customer asked about it, I would try to find someone else to answer their questions or pretend I never heard them and walk away: Tires. I knew nothing about tires, and customers could tell I knew nothing about tires. That’s when a veteran employee — aged 25 or so — took me under his wing and explained that customers don’t like it when you don’t have answers for them. It’s all in the delivery; you have to speak with confidence.

Even worse than acting with confidence you have no right to have is thinking you know everything when you don’t. Ambition and self-confidence grow from the same stock. Both are good, but easily abused. Many young leaders think they have the skills and ideas to solve the world’s problems right now, and perhaps they do, but they lack opportunity and credibility.

Let me offer some perspective from Bob Creson, Wycliffe USA’s president:

It’s hard to say this (as an older leader to younger leaders) but there really is no substitute for experience.  And, often it takes one or two very difficult experiences to form the foundation of a leader’s future success.  My father-in-law likes to say, “Education is expensive.”  He’s not talking about formal education but rather the hard knocks required learning the lessons of leadership (and life, for that matter).  I can point to several of these in my own experience (both inside and outside of Wycliffe) that continue to shape my approach to leadership to this day.

It goes back to your attitude. Do you approach life, colleagues, reports, kids and clients like you know it all? Or like a learner always willing to have your views challenged with a new perspective? The question I have to ask myself again is, “Are you more interested in being discovered or in being developed?

As we start a new year, and I wrap up my series on Romans 12, let’s agree to approach 2010 as learners. There’s always more room to grow in our leadership abilities.

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.