I really thought leaders were pretty close to perfect. At least that was my impression growing up. The leaders I admired always seemed to say the right things, make great decisions, and knew exactly what to do next. So you can only imagine the pressure I put on myself to live up to their standards. If I was going to be a leader, then I had better start looking, acting, and talking just like them.
The only problem was most of what I perceived wasn’t true. The older I got, the more I realized I wasn’t seeing the entire life of any of the leaders I admired. I know this is going to shock you, but the leaders I admired didn’t always say the right things, sometimes made really bad decisions, and often struggled to know exactly what to do next.
I have to laugh at myself as I think back about what I thought about leadership—and those who lead–early in my life. Somewhere along the way, I mixed up being a superhero with being a leader. But those two ideas aren't mutually exclusive nor are they intricately linked. Some leaders can seem like superheroes in the moment, but those same leaders can be unbelievably human, too.
LEADERS ARE ORDINARY PEOPLE.
Leaders are people—just ordinary people. The difference is they decided to lean in and create meaningful change in themselves and the people around them. It is true that great leaders have a strong sense of who they are, act on conviction, and focus on results. But it’s also true that leaders often are their own worst critic, doubt even what they know is true, and sometimes can't see the forest for the trees in front of them.
Of course, not being superhuman doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel and decide leadership isn’t worth it. I can tell you leadership is absolutely worth it. But you need to approach it with a level head and open mind. The longer I’m in leadership, the more I realize it has very little to do with the things you think it does early on.
IF I COULD GO BACK IN TIME, HERE ARE THE FIVE THINGS I WOULD TELL MYSELF ABOUT LEADERSHIP:
1. It’s not about being the smartest person in the room; it’s about asking the right question. When you’re the only one talking, you’re dictating–not leading.
2. It’s not about being the most talented; it’s about activating the genius in others. The most effective leaders are like coaches; they get their athletes and teams to perform at exceptional levels.
3. It’s not about being at the front of the room; it’s about making room for others to lead. Great leaders aren’t just found at the front of the room.
4. It’s not about doing as much as you can; it’s about stripping away all distractions. Leadership is an endurance sport. Focus and clarity will keep you from burning up and burning out too early.
5. It’s not about measuring effort; it’s about measuring progress. Leaders don’t confuse productivity with progress. Rather, they understand results and outcomes are evidence of good habits and great thinking.
I SUPPOSE THERE MIGHT BE A FEW MORE THINGS I WOULD TELL MY YOUNGER SELF:
1. Be patient. Leadership and legacies aren’t built in a day.
2. Be present. If leadership is about people, then others need to know you are fully present and with them. Otherwise, they won’t fully trust you.
3. Be persistent. It doesn’t matter how many times you try and fail. It matters that you succeed.
4. Be grateful. If life is a series of course corrections, then leadership is a series of small victories.
5. Be generous. Don’t live your entire life thinking about yourself. Do things to help others in ways that will never benefit from directly or indirectly.
LEADERSHIP IS SIMPLY A SEASON OF INFLUENCE.
I’m sure people told me these things along the way. But like many things, until you are ready to hear, see, and receive them, you won’t be open to the message and blessing they contain. Give yourself a break every once in a while. Don’t take life too seriously. And don’t believe the lie that leaders are anything but human beings placed in moments and seasons of influence to bring about change in the world. The second you begin to think you are more than just human, you’ll forget what leadership is really all about—people.
One benefit of being the president of a university is I am around many talented leaders. I'm proud of our staff and faculty—the quality of their work and the progress achieved together. I’m also so encouraged by our students. The next generation is going to be exciting to watch as they move into the workforce and eventually find themselves leading churches, businesses, startups, nonprofits, and maybe even governments. I just hope they remember to smile, take a deep breath, and don’t miss the journey in the pursuit of the destination.
Leadership is a gift, but it is only for a season. Lean in. The adventure is worth the risk.
CHALLENGE: Write down what you believe leadership is and what makes a good leader. Is that accurate? What needs to change in you to grow in your leadership? What steps will you make to implement those changes starting today?