The Mark of a True Leader
Why leadership is less about being front and center and more about scouting new horizons.
The most expansive, energetic force in the world today is the Spirit of God. More than a message, more than a creed and more than a plan, the Spirit of God is like an unrelenting mighty wind driving across the oceans, propelling us toward previously undiscovered countries. And so leaders cannot stand in one place. They cannot get to a certain status and then lock in what seems to be at that moment a good thing. Spiritual influence means continual movement, a continual exploration of new horizons.
This principle is both global and personal. Jesus charged all His followers and those who were follower-leaders to be propelled out of Jerusalem (home territory), into Judea (regional influence) and Samaria (crossing into foreign soil) and to the uttermost parts of the world (the universe of humankind itself). And so Christian leadership in its healthiest and bravest form is an expansive mission at one level tracked by distances charted on a world map, but at another level counted one person at a time. We are called to deal with the dregs of human suffering, the whirlpools of intellectual dilemmas and the outer space of lostness. None of it is easy.
This mission is intensely personal. The trajectory toward the uttermost parts of the earth begins with the next simple step that we take, by meeting people we have never met before, going to places we have never been to before, creating ministry that we have not engaged in before. But true exploration, made possible by solid faith and courage, is how we find the leading edge of the kingdom of God.
Everyone wants to discover something new and fresh. Discovery is intriguing and invigorating. Discovery reminds us that our lives are not over yet, that there is more to life than what we can see right now, and that any of us may have yet-undiscovered potential.
Discovery-leading is telling people that you, the influencer, are driven by a conviction that something new is around the corner and that others can join in the quest. You don’t even fully know what it is yet, but you know the direction is right, light is spilling over the horizon ahead, and no one has yet arrived at the final destination. Leaders don’t motivate people by their knowledge of the future, but by their anticipation of what is possible. Discovery-leading could be in the form of a mission organization, a small group, a business venture or a church home.
Some leaders believe that they must always project a concrete vision of the future and define the vision in detail. But spiritual influence is often most effective when people are drawn into a vision not yet fully formed, so they get to be part of the discovery. People do not want to be herded like cattle. They want to be fellow explorers.
So, for example, one person has a burden for the profound needs of a refugee population in his city. He starts to talk with others about the need, and the burden gradually becomes a vision in his mind. Not a vision with details and how-to’s, but a mental picture of the grace of God flowing to the refugee group through many possible mercy initiatives. He shares that vision with a broader base of people, asking, “What do you think?”
Two things happen. Others begin to see the same need and sense the same burden; and they contribute specific ideas: What about education needs? job placement? housing? a church plant? They brainstorm about possible resources: funding, expertise, networks of similar work, key leaders, constituencies who would have an interest. Gradually a plan emerges. It is just a one-year plan, not a ten-year plan, because the leaders see this as an exploration with many unforeseen challenges and opportunities. In the first year a couple dozen people are involved, but in the second and third year a couple hundred people sign on and a nonprofit organization is founded to carry on the work.
Four years in and the organization has discovered three main ways to help the refugee group and has discarded five efforts that were dead end roads. They regularly interact with a network of similar enterprises around the country, and their experiences help shape other organizations. Though they have established best practices, they still keep an attitude of discovery about the work, knowing that God may have new horizons for them that they would never come up with on their own.
A drive to discover can be the engine of spiritual influence. Sometimes it takes the form of an expedition—the mobilizing of large numbers of people to go on a multiyear quest. But discovery can happen as an everyday experience as well. Discovery does not need a budget, and it does not need to wait for committee approval. In the next twenty-four hours, or at least in the next week or month, any of us can find some place of discovery that is nearby and does not take months of preparation:
Read Scripture daily and register one new or renewed insight each reading.
Meet another leader outside the circles you normally move in.
Go to a needy place you’ve never visited before—whether it is in the next neighborhood or another part of the world. But be prepared to give up preconceptions of the spiritual or physical poverty you think you will find there, and look for the grace of God. Be open to discovering your own spiritual poverty.
Visit a place of refuge and linger there—a hospital, nursing facility, rescue mission, storefront ministry, hospice.
Mentor a struggling coworker.
Volunteer to lead a risky project.
Do something you have never done before. Take a temporary chaplaincy role, spend a weekend with an urban ministry, lead a Bible study in a prison, offer counsel to a couple about to be married, offer to arbitrate a dispute, tutor at-risk kids, be a mentor to someone in a substance-abuse program.
We all must know our comfort zones so that we can stretch beyond them. However, do not seek discomfort for its own sake, and certainly do not try to be some kind of hero. Another way of saying “go beyond your comfort zone” is “discover the undiscovered.” Once we leave behind the familiar we will start to see the work God is already doing. And then, in the divine/human nexus, God will wonderfully co-opt us to work where we previously would not have imagined.
Adapted with permission from Spiritual Influence by Mel Lawrenz (Zondervan) Copyright 2012.