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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Motivated enough

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.

Gifts, interests and calling

At Wycliffe USA, there’s a group of young leaders who meet together for mutual encouragement, accountability and to challenge each other. The goal of The Threshing Floor is to discuss issues of leadership and prompt each other to action. In meeting with this group twice a month for the last two years, I’ve noticed that there are differences between having leadership gifts, leadership interests and leadership calling. Reluctance seems to happen when one or more of those characteristics is missing.

(Notice that I didn’t list leadership positions. I think all of us can think of someone who has a position but lacks the other three.)

Let me give a couple of examples. For starters, I’ve watched a handful of people who come in streaks. They come for a while, then disappear. After a while they return. Why? I’ve concluded that they are intrigued by the idea of leadership. They’re students of it; they like to watch leadership in action up close. But every time they try setting out for the deep end themselves, they panic. Then they throw up their hands and stop pursuing leadership… for a while. Eventually that interest bubbles to the surface and they return.

So, do they just have leadership interests but no calling? Or no gifting? I’m not sure that’s it, because I’ve seen them influence people. I think they’re more comfortable following, except that they can’t simply follow. For some, I believe they perceive leadership gifts in themselves but they either haven’t found their niche or have failed gloriously the few times they’ve tried it.

What about the person who has leadership gifts and calling but never sought it? Consider Steve Murrell, pastor and author of The Reluctant Leader blog. The rationale for naming his blog is an interesting read. This sentence sums it up for me:

Maybe you never wanted to be a leader, but then you turned around and people seem to be following you. Scary.

Any reluctant leaders out there? What’s your story?