I was listening to a webinar last week that misrepresented itself and turned out far less useful than advertised. Not an atypical experience; webinars too often devolve into infomercials for the presenter rather than designed for the audience. I recall the words of an old boss. Joe Ledlie used to insist that you have to add value to any piece used to sell your company. If you add value for the recipient, they will listen to your message.

What saved the entire webinar for me was one question raised five minutes from the end. “What do I do with a young person who has an insatiable hunger for a leadership position and incredible impatience with taking the steps to develop?” Given the way my ears perked up at that question, I should have caught more of the presenter’s response. The one phrase that derailed my mind was his characterization of “an over-inflated sense of readiness.”

Have you ever encountered this phenomenon? I’m all for young people stepping into leadership, but too many want to reach the goal without putting in the hard work. Reality TV probably feeds this desire for instance gratification. Young people today would rather be Kelly Clarkson than the Beatles, who Malcolm Gladwell claims put in an estimated 10,000 hours of hard work in Germany before ever making it big.

So, let’s unpack this issue a little bit. First, why do we need young people in leadership? I’ll address that here. In my next post, I’ll argue the other side.

I think organizations are served well by a variety of viewpoints. Ethnicity and gender are two principle means of achieving that diversity, but recognizing that it’s not the skin that’s important, but the unique vantage points their unique experience brings. However, there are a few more elusive forms of diversity, such as age and a fresh set of eyes – someone who comes from outside the organization and lifts the organization out of its rut. Both have expiration dates.

Age diversity incorporates several desirable characteristics:

  • generational viewpoints
  • ability to understand the culture
  • technical savvy
  • coachability
  • open mindedness
  • willingness to risk
  • energy
  • curiosity

I think ability to understand culture and technology has parallels with ability to understand and speak languages. Social media is not my first language; I’m probably a 1.5 generation. But computers are my first language. In contrast, my parents use computers like it’s their second language and find social media completely unintelligible.

The goal isn’t to ditch one generation in favor of another, but to have all working together to create a rich tapestry of perspectives. You therefore need both on your leadership team. If you have a couple of older sages, you can afford to take a risk on a couple of young, energetic change agents. I’ll go ahead and say it: most organizations and businesses take too risk-averse a line when it comes to inviting young people to the leadership table.

Cameron TownsendWhen I look at Wycliffe and wonder how we could ever turn the keys over to a young leader, it’s helpful for me to remember this picture. Our founder was in his twenties when he had the audacity to think he could start an organization that would take on translation for the remaining language groups.

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When I was learning to ski back when I was in high school, I was taught that the most important thing to learn is how to fall well. Now, there’s two ways to judge quality. When you’re on the ski lift, and you see someone wipe out spectacularly below you, you judge a good fall by factors like whether both skis and poles separate from the individual, what body parts hit snow at high speeds, number of twists, etc. When you’re the one falling, you use different parameters. You want to fall in such a way that your skis don’t twist and cause knee damage, that you don’t hit stationary objects, and that you are able to get up again. During the recent Olympics, we saw some people who knew how to fall. Do you remember Anja Paerson, the female downhill skiier who crossed the finish line on her face? She ended up getting bronze two days later. That was someone who knew how to fall.

I think what Michelle Braden would tell you is that leaders need to know how to fall. They need to be able to get back up, stiff and bruised as they are, and try again. When gauging leadership potential we need to consider, What is a young person’s ability to fail and then recover again? Do they understand how to do that? As I think about her question, “Do they understand the process to recover from failure?” I suspect most organizations don’t have any kind of articulated process for that. What they have instead is a track record. I heard recently about an executive in Orlando who very publicly blew it in managing a division of the company. The CEO took him under his wing and gently restored him and built up his confidence again. He is now CEO of a division of that company. How many people in the company watched that happen? I guarantee you there are leaders in that company who have followed that same model to restore others. And I guarantee you the young leaders and aspiring leaders in that company noticed.

So, I think there are three points that are worth discussing. First, stop and ask yourself: What is your organization’s track record for recovery from failure? What can you as a leader do to change or build on that track record?

Second, as established leaders, keep your eye open for failure. Look for young people who show fortitude and resilience in failure. We can look for those who can take the heat and handle pushback. We can look for those who can stand by a decision that blew up on them and not make excuses. We need to be quick to come alongside them and not let them stay down too long.

Third, take a moment to think: What was your first big failure? What lessons did you learn from it that you still apply today?

I like to warn graphic designers that a day will come when they would cost their company money because of a bad decision. If they are lucky, it will only cost the company hundreds. My first big mistake cost my company a couple of thousand. I remember getting the bank stationery back from the printer and picking up the first sheet of letterhead. It felt like it was printed on copy paper. I got a big knot in my throat. I had to go to the namesakes of our public relations firm and own my mistake — that I had trusted the recommendation of our print broker without verifying the paper myself. We of course reprinted the job. That situation ended up breaking my relationship with the printer that we had used for years, and I probably could have handled that situation differently. My boss never complained about the cost. But I’ll tell you this: I worked harder at my job after that point. I swore I would never disappoint my boss again. And to this day, I trust my vendors but verify everything.

Failure is great leadership development… if you know how to fall well.

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.

The third item on Steve Moore’s list caught my attention. It reminded me of an essay by Reidy Associates on Encouraging Reluctant Leaders that explored the reasons leaders don’t step up, blaming the “hero myth” for a lot of the damage. Reidy starts with a quote from Jerry Garcia:

“Somebody has to do something and it’s incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.” We don’t have to have all the skills, all the answers. We don’t have to have it figured out better than anyone else. We do need to see something that needs attention and be motivated enough to organize a response.

Let me repeat that last statement, because it’s as good a definition of leadership as I’ve heard in a while: someone who sees something that needs attention and is motivated enough to organize a response. As Reidy points out, many get into leadership out of necessity. “Action occurs when motivation is stronger than resistance or reticence.”

Let me give you a personal example. Over the last ten years, I noticed a number of incredibly-gifted young leaders suddenly decide to leave our organization. These were people that I was looking forward to serving shoulder-to-shoulder with, long into the future, and they were suddenly gone. I realized that if our young leaders didn’t stick around, we wouldn’t have the leadership we needed to see our vision completed.

It certainly wasn’t my responsibility, but someone needed to do something about it. As no one stepped up, my desperation grew. About three years ago, I decided to send out a pact to all the young leaders I knew. It contained four points:

  1. We will practice leading. We commit ourselves in community to develop and use that gift where God has placed us. “If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously” (Rom 12:8).
  2. We will be not be disqualified. We hold ourselves to a high standard of godliness. We will hold each other accountable for our actions. “Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (I Cor 9:27).
  3. We will step up. We will develop our gifts by accepting appropriate positions of responsibility and authority. We will encourage each other to consider new challenges. “If someone aspires to be an elder, he desires an honorable position” (I Tim 3:1).
  4. We will not give up. Working as younger generations in a Boomer environment, we know we will get discouraged at times. We will not give up without consulting with one or two other colleagues for encouragement and prayer. “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (I Tim 4:12).

We began the Threshing Floor community as a lunch discussion group, and it has since expanded to Facebook. In the three years since we began meeting, I’ve had eight conversations with people who approached me and said, “I promised I’d talk with someone before I did anything…” and then went on to share their frustrations. Only one regular Threshing Floor participant has left the organization.

It’s not just a Wycliffe need. When Steve Moore taught that breakout session on supporting young leaders, he struck a chord. At the end, a young African American lady from another mission was in tears as she said, “I’ve been so hungry for this kind of thing.” She confessed her frustration at being overlooked because of her age and her gender. That was the moment I realized that I’ve only scratched the surface with the breadth of these issues.

Back to the topic at hand. My road to leadership development started three years ago when I saw an unmet need, and I had to do something. The need isn’t gone; if anything, I’m still learning how big that need is.

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?

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.

I’m back after a short absence. I’ll try to be more timely in my blogging again. Over the next few posts, I want to go back to the reluctant leadership idea. In particular, what causes reluctance to step up?

I suggest there are a number of reasons. Perhaps the foremost is a fear of failure. Young people with potential for leadership need to be identified early and mentored. Part of the strength of the mentoring relationship is the commitment between mentor and mentee – a commitment that can be the difference in a young person stepping up.

They say delegation without support is abandonment. Well, it’s the same with mentoring. Even if the mentee seems ready, that commitment may still be the lifeline. Throwing a young leader into deep water before they have the tools to swim will only reinforce their deep-seated fear that they weren’t really able to do the job. When failure happens, as it certainly will to some degree, how will they handle it? Often, it sets Gen-Xers back for years and causes them to flee responsibility at least until the setting seems right to try again.

A young man knocked on my door one day. He hadn’t shown interest in the Threshing Floor when we first started it. I suspected he had leadership gifts, but he’d actually moved downward in the hierarchy at Wycliffe since I first met him. Recently, however, he had showed glimmers of interest. He came to our group with his Gen-X supervisor, and now he was at my office wanting to talk. He said he’d been talking quite a bit with his boss about leadership and she suggested he might get a lot out of The Threshing Floor. After being around other young leaders, he was so excited and wanted to soak up all he could. He unfolded the following story.

A few years before, he’d been put into a position of leadership with the promise that he would be mentored by his predecessor for two years. But within 6-9 months in the position, the mentor left him due to various reasons and eventually moved to another position. This young man quickly became overwhelmed and asked to move back to his previous role. He’d tried leadership but wasn’t prepared or supported adequately and had a bad experience. It took him years to come back around to wanting to try it again.

Shortly after our conversation, his supervisor – who was equally young but had a broad range of experience and success in various positions – was promoted. Now, in a much more supportive setting, he agreed to move back to the same position he had burned out on before. He’s doing great, and we’re seeing even greater leadership abilities emerging.

What does someone like this need? A safe, supportive environment to cultivate their leadership gifts. A setting that allows failure and provides a chance to get back up again. And a mentor committed to making sure they’re really swimming before letting go.