Sunday, November 20, 2005

Leadership Lesson #1: The First Thing a True Leader Must Be

[Most of what I know about leadership, I've learned through failure. This is the first of an occasional series I intend to present here on lessons I've learned from those failures, other experiences, my reading, and my observations. I hope you find it helpful.]

I was ordained as a pastor in 1984, four-and-a-half years after I'd left the political world and started seminary, nine years after I graduated from Ohio State.

Time and again, seminary classmates had affirmed that I was "a leader." And it's true that throughout my life, including those years before I went to seminary, whenever I was thrown in with a group of people, I seemed to always and involuntarily emerge as a leader.

But after being told so often what a naturally-gifted leader I was, I may have become a victim of my own "good press." I was a bit too sure of myself, at risk of developing the greatest mistaken attitude that leaders can adopt, a sense of entitlement. People with this attitude see themselves as being in a superior class. Those with a sense of entitlement may be "bosses," who throw their weight around, but they're not leaders. Bosses can't inspire respect or superior performance in others; leaders do that.

In the Old Testament book of Genesis, you'll find the story of Joseph, favored son of the patriarch, Jacob. When Joseph was young, he apparently had a strong sense of how his father's shepherding business should be run. He also had the gift of "dreams," a spiritual capacity for envisioning things.

While he was undeniably imbued by God with the capacity for visionary leadership, Joseph demonstrated his lack of maturity when, as a young man, he used his gifts to squeal on his brothers to their father and when he gloated over dreams indicating that one day he would be their lord.

It was only after enduring the crucible of hard experiences that Joseph's leadership qualities, once a justification for arrogance, were tempered by the realization that a real leader is, first and foremost, a servant.

Of course, the ultimate servant-leader was Jesus Christ Who, on the night of His arrest and betrayal, did the slave's work of washing His disciples' feet. He then told the disciples that anyone who aspired to be with Him or to do God's work in the world must learn from His example and be a servant too.

Without adopting the attitude of a servant, a leader will never fulfill the promise of her or his life. They'll be fatally focused on themselves. I'll talk more about this in later installments of the series.

[Next installment: the most overrated quality for a leader.]


Charlie said...

Good post, Mark, and I'm looking forward to what else you have to say on the subject.

I like your insight about Joseph. I've always been troubled by his early arrogance, as you call it, and felt like he deserved some of what he got from his brothers. But I think I missed the point that you make, that he grew up and came to use his gifts as a blessing and not a bludgeon. Which is a good lesson -- being "gifted" is one thing, being taught by God to use one's gifts in love is quite another.

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks so much for your feedback.

Our gifts can sometimes lure us into arrogance. But through the chastening of experience, God can guide us to use them for their proper purposes.