What We Get Wrong About Leadership
And the one thing we need to get right.
I once hired a guy who had moved to South Carolina from the northeastern part of the United States.
During one of our early conversations, he was trying to figure out more about the area, and he asked me what people in our community do for fun. I told him a lot of people like going to the lake, hiking, fishing or playing golf. But then I said something that caused him to look at me like someone had punched him in the throat: “And a lot of people around here love to go out in groups and shag.”
My new employee looked at me like I had lost my mind. So I felt the need to continue to explain.
“A lot of people in our church shag.”
His jaw dropped.
“I’m not that good of a shagger myself,” I continued, “but my wife took shagging lessons in college, and she’s really good at it.”
At this point, he thought he’d agreed to work for one of the most perverted pastors in the country.
I should let you know that in South Carolina, our state tree is the palmetto, our state bird is the Carolina wren … and our state dance is called the shag, which, after my conversation with my new staff member, I learned means something very different in other parts of the world.
This exchange with my staff member reminded me of something a friend had told me years ago: “Words don’t have meanings; people have meanings.” So when we say certain words or phrases, they may mean something completely different to the person we’re talking to than they do to us.
Based on my 25 years as a leader, I think there’s no word more often misunderstood than leadership.
That’s not because there’s a lack of information. I recently came across an article from CNN about the qualities that make a good leader. The list included 23 attributes, including confidence, vision and influence.
Let’s take a look at the following three viewpoints on leadership, just for starters:
I have a hunch many people would agree that leadership equals confidence, and I think there’s some truth to that. A leader has to be able to make tough decisions. A leader has to be willing to go against popular opinion.
However, while confidence is important, I don’t believe it’s the most excellent way to lead.
Joseph Stalin was confident. He made tough decisions. But because his confidence was self-centered and cruel, millions of people lost their lives. Or consider Pharaoh, the leader of Egypt who was so stubbornly confident about his own power, he allowed his people to suffer under 10 plagues (see Exodus 7–11). He was confident, but he certainly wasn’t great.
People may also argue that leadership equals vision—and again, I believe that’s true to a certain extent. Leaders have to be able to focus on a task with a laser-like intensity to avoid getting distracted by things of lesser importance. And not only do they have to have a clear vision themselves but they also have to be able to communicate that vision to the team.
The trouble is that visionary leadership apart from the proper focus can result in disaster. In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders, the Pharisees, had a very focused vision. But they were so worried about their own legalistic rules and their positions of power that they made an enemy out of Jesus, the Messiah they were supposed to be waiting for.
Some people think that true leaders simply have the gift of influence. A leader has to be able to produce passion in people and compel them to action. A leader has to be able to unify a group of people who may not have much in common besides the goal they’re trying to achieve.
However, while I believe influence is essential for leadership, I don’t think it’s the best way to lead.
Bernie Madoff had influence—so much that he was able to convince thousands of people to invest in his Ponzi scheme to the tune of $65 billion. He was highly influential, but I have a hunch no one today would call him a great leader.
A Better Way
So if great leadership is not defined by confidence, vision or influence, as most of the world would say, then what is the most excellent way to lead?
It’s simple: the most excellent way is leadership by love.
Hold on—don’t throw your computer across the room. I know this sounds countercultural and maybe even a little touchy feely, but I promise this isn’t just some idea I came up with one night after eating a Meat Lover’s pizza with extra cheese and having a weird dream. I get this idea from the Bible. More specifically, from a guy named Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament.
Paul was an excellent leader. He started at least 14 churches (possibly more) at a time when the Church was less popular than it is today. In Paul’s day, church wasn’t merely a social gathering but a place where people who followed Christ came together, knowing it could cost them their lives if they were caught doing so.
In 1 Corinthians 12, the emphasis of Paul’s writing to the church is on spiritual gifts, leadership and the importance of working together. In 1 Corinthians 14, he continues this line of reasoning as he encourages leaders to sound a clear call for their followers.
But right in the middle of these two chapters, we find 1 Corinthians 13. At first glance, these words seem to be more like advice for newlyweds than instructions for the conference room. The 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians is, after all, commonly known as the “love chapter.”
For years, the placement of this chapter puzzled me.
It seemed like Paul was writing about leadership, and then he paused and thought, Hmm, maybe I should write something Christians can use in their wedding ceremonies one day! After he penned 1 Corinthians 13, he picked up the subject of leadership again and continued to talk about it in chapter 14.
But the Bible wasn’t originally separated by chapters and verses (those were added later to help people find certain Scripture passages). Once I had that realization, it hit me like a brick in the face: 1 Corinthians 13 is primarily a chapter on how to lead, not how to have a great marriage.
In 1 Corinthians 12:31, Paul says, “I will show you the most excellent way.”
The most excellent way to what? To be a great person? To be a great spouse? To be a great date?
I don’t believe so. Paul is continuing his discussion about leadership here, and when he says he’s going to show you the most excellent way, I believe he’s saying, “I will show you the most excellent way to lead.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re a single mother trying to lead your family, a student organizing a group of people to fight for a cause, an entrepreneur trying to get a startup off the ground, a pastor trying to lead your church, or a CEO leading a business—if we practice leadership by love, we will become leaders other people actually want to follow.
Adapted from The Most Excellent Way to Lead by Perry Noble (Tyndale, 2016). Used with permission.