How do you know if you are a leader?
Turn around, if there is someone following, you might be a leader. What a cliché answer. It just does not work for me. As a student of leadership theory and practice I have struggled with this question for many years. In fact I refuse to publicly call myself a leader. Why? I believe leadership is something you do, not talk and boast about. It is something you earnestly strive to become better at day by day. It is a noble pursuit that when done correctly is almost invisible. There is an elegance and beauty in influencing others and helping position them to shine. For me leadership is at its best when you lose track of who will get credit, when you stop caring whether the spotlight will fall on you.
Three years ago I set out to understand the formative stages of leadership development. I asked myself: who becomes a leader? How can we identify them? After all if we could skip the sheep dip and get busy developing those with true potential our efforts at leadership development would be greatly magnified. For an entire year I immersed myself in answering this question. I would like to say that I have a simple six step process for identifying leaders. I do not. I would like to share with you that there is an easy way. There is not.
I learned that leadership is a relationship. It is a trust bond between leader and follower, it is a profound responsibility. Leadership is founded in a number of universal characteristics which are necessary but insufficient in of themselves. It is enhanced by unique combinations of other personal attributes. There are as many combinations of attributes as there are leaders to exhibit them. In other words there is no one recipe for leadership success. There is a seemingly infinite number of combinations that come together at moments in time to create this mystical thing; a leader.
The bedrock, those universal characteristics that underlie most leaders, I found to be integrity, emotional intelligence, confidence and decisiveness. What made each leader studied effective was what made them unique. In some cases charisma, in others attitude, in yet others teaching ability. No two were alike. Yet through all the formal research, all the process and rigor, there was something calling out to me that I struggled to identify. It took weeks to get my head around what I was being told. It was as if everyone I talked to was filling in the parts of the puzzle that surrounded the core of the model. Those gray amorphous regions that tell you what you did not find. Doggedly I filled in the spaces, painted the whole picture. What did I find? I discovered the last universal characteristic that leaders share…passion.
Passion is the fuel that feeds the leaders resilience. You may knock him down but the journey he is on is so important that he cannot help but get back up and find another way past each obstacle. Passion is the fuel that overcomes tiredness at the end of a long hard day. It is the fuel that sustains hope through the darkest of days. Passion. This is the leader’s greatest ally.
I think Pastor Bill Hybels reduced this characteristic to it’s essence in a recent Leadership Summit speech (see link below). He said passion is what comes before a leader’s vision. How does one find their passion? He asked a simple three word question that absolutely haunts me. What wrecks you?
What wrecks YOU?
What is it that tears you apart inside causes you to cry out for justice, for healing, for education? What Holy discontent burns inside of you?
What wrecks you?
For me it is suffering, loneliness, emptiness, and ignorance. When I see these things in the eyes of others I cannot help myself but to get involved.
What wrecks YOU?
Take a step back though. Ever tried to boil the ocean? Not an easy task is it? We need to focus our efforts like a magnifying glass on a hot summer day. Bring it to laser focus on an issue to allow us to be a part of the resolution. But we cannot take on everything; we must find our own way. It is here that a leader’s skill comes into play. In the same way that each leader has a unique set of attributes, so to do they have a unique set of gifts. The challenge becomes how you can leverage your gifts to affect positive change on those things that wreck you that also fit your gifting.
It is for this reason that the gift of leadership is so crucial to our age. Whenever any one of us suppresses their gift to lead we all suffer. Together we must lean into our passions and learn what wrecks us so that together we can emerge in a new world where leaders step into the breech and make the difference that our world craves.
What wrecks you?
What are you going to do about it today?