It was a lonely life, but Jesse’s baby boy made the most of it. His brothers probably learned the same way he did, but had gone on to other exploits.
David? He was confined to the idiot patrol. He was his father’s shepherd. And it was there – alone with the dumbest animals on the planet – that David learned to be a leader.
He was alone when a lion came and seized a lamb from his flock. He was alone when a bear did the same. He was alone when he delivered those sheep from the valley of the shadow of death. And the passion, courage, and wisdom he gained there – alone – forged pathways of leadership in Israel that were still in place years after his death.
Goliath? That was just mop-up duty.
It’s true that leadership is on display when everybody else is looking. It’s also true that leadership is being forged when no one is. You may feel you’re in a wilderness, stuck making up silly songs to sing to the sheep. In fact, you may assume that your solitude or lack of position means you’re no leader at all.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are eight ways to influence an entire generation, even when nobody is looking to you as the obvious solution to their leadership needs. Leadership is found:
1. In the understanding you pursue.
History has given us a laundry list of people who were labeled colossal failures before emerging in their genius. Lincoln learned to be Commander-in-Chief when he entered the Black Hawk war as a captain – and returned home as a private. Edison was sent home in the fourth grade with the message that he was “too stupid to learn.” Beethoven’s music teacher once said of him, “As a composer, he is hopeless.” And a newspaper editor fired Walt Disney because “he had no good ideas.”
What distinguished all those leaders in their fields was a gift of wide-eyed wonder and the heart of a patient listener who was unafraid to learn from their own mistakes. While they floundered early and were dismissed by the really smart people, they were, in fact, crafting their leadership by pursuing understanding with abandon. Oh… and you should see what each of these leaders did as an encore after they became famous! They never stopped pursuing understanding. Neither should you.
2. In the differences you embrace.
You will never be a strategist in leadership until you recognize that the people you propose to influence are very different from you. And that’s a good thing.
Growing up, it was easy to assume that God was a Baptist from Mobile, Alabama because I was. I remember making a presentation on Christianity in a World Lit class in high school and being publicly confronted by a classmate named Tara. She had a completely different view of Adam and Eve, biblical truth, and lots of other things. I was baffled, and had no answer. I do now, but it’s a little late.
Over the years I have (imperfectly) learned to embrace people with different perspectives. I am still a work in progress, but I have learned to see God’s light and love in the faces, voices and values of people who are completely different to me. Even more difficult, I am learning to recognize that those differences aren’t the result of poverty, intelligence, or politics. They are God-designed opportunities to show our love first to Him then to those He died for… and all in a setting that transcends Church World. But here’s the catch… you don’t learn that just by hanging out and dialoguing with different people. You learn it by going back to God – alone – for understanding.
3. In the preparation you demonstrate.
When I was learning to preach in seminary, one of the things I was taught more than once is that the more we studied and prepared, the less time it would take us to deliver our message with clarity. You can spot a preacher who hasn’t studied because it takes him twice as long to say that he needs to say.
Louis Pasteur famously said that “Chance favors the prepared mind.” And minds are prepared mostly in solitude or small groups. Your giant-killing opportunities that present themselves quickly and make you look like Wonder Woman or Superman are most often the result of long, boring, laborious preparation. Just remember, preparation is leadership, too.
4. In the curiosity you arouse.
Leadership requires innovation. And innovation requires curiosity. The best leaders have the unique ability to think deeply about simple things and simplify the difficult things. They ask questions of people in completely different fields. They think through the answers. They clarify. They communicate. And like a bee doing its best work, they cross-pollinate.
This is often difficult for specialists, technicians, and some academics to accept because they live in a world of narrow precision. Nothing wrong with that. But there isn’t much leadership there, either.
Leadership is multi-disciplinary. And that often starts with curiosity and the ability to learn from multiple sources. But it keeps going when you arouse the same kind of curiosity and clarity in others.
5. In the contradictions you accept.
Jessica Andrews, in her song about being Rosemary’s Granddaughter (written by a man), says,
I’m a saint and I’m a sinner
I’m a loser; I’m a winner
I am steady and unstable
I’m young, but I am able.
We’re all a mixed bag. Your culture, your gender, your gifts and skills, your weaknesses and life experiences all point to human soup ‘n’ salad.
Life is not either-or. It’s both-and. That’s true of you, and of the people you will influence. Your times of solitude give you the opportunities to reflect on that and learn from it. To embrace the best of who you are while giving yourself permission to become the transformed person you are yet to be.
6. In the paths you clear.
David Livingstone once said, “If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.”
Leaders aren’t always marshaling human resources or motivating the troops. Sometimes they’re busy making today’s impossible tomorrow’s possible. Or breaking through barriers and limitations by risking their lives or reputations to truly change something. That’s often lonely business, where you’re misunderstood or rejected by the keepers of the status quo.
In business, social structures, relationships, and all realms of influence, leaders clear paths and build roads where none existed before. Often their “followers” travel on those roads long after the leader has left the scene. If you’re prepared for the lonely business of leadership, the paths you clear can truly change the world.
7. In the peaks and valleys you level.
Every valley must be elevated, and every mountain and hill leveled.
The rough terrain will become a level plain, the rugged landscape a wide valley (Isaiah 40:4, NET).
Some of the greatest contributions leaders can make are to make the roads a little easier to travel for others. It takes heart and courage to confront your own mountains and valleys. It takes compassion and love to make it possible for others to confront theirs.
In a world that resists change and assumes mountains are here to stay, leaders change the landscape, not only for themselves, but for those who come behind them. Maybe it’s a new technology or a new breakthrough in performance. Maybe it’s a new approach to facing an old problem – or the revival of a radically old approach that (surprise!) still works today. Regardless, leaders spend a lot of alone time asking questions like, “How can we make this easier, better, faster, more accessible to more people?”
8. In the truth you declare.
Do you know Evan Dolive yet? You should. A couple of weeks ago he threw a rock into the head of his own giant – named Victoria’s Secret. In response to their advertising aimed at “bright young things” that targeted a younger and younger demographic, Evan wrote an open letter to Victoria’s Secret that went viral and sent the panty producer into retreat. One guy – the father of a three-year-old who loves princesses, Dora the Explorer and Doc McStuffins – stood up and told the world that just because it’s a trend doesn’t necessarily mean it’s our friend.
Evan became a cultural influence because he’s a culture-confronter. But more than that, he has made it his life’s mission to declare God’s truth. He has captured a tension that every Christian leader must address or fail – that we are in the world, not to conform to it, but to help shape it with good news.
Anybody can lead when the whole world is watching. My question for you is, what are you doing to shape the world when you’re completely alone?
Elsewhere on LifeVesting