Will was an insecure, painfully shy 11-year-old boy who came from a very poor family. But his sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Goodwin, saw something special in him – not just in the student he was at the time, but as the adult he could become. And through that year, she began to give Will a gift that no one to that point had ever dared offer – the gift of confidence.
She told him he was the smartest student she ever had. She said it to him personally and to the class.
She told him how much potential he had.
She took him to her home.
She even took him to the junior high school he would attend the next year to introduce Will to his teachers and tell them what a great student he was.
She told him that the only other student who showed his potential became the vice president of a well-known university.
True to Mrs. Goodwin’s prediction, Will became the first person in his family to go to college. Buoyed by her care and concern he went on to a successful academic career… as a… (you guessed it) vice president of a major university.
Mrs. Goodwin was more than a teacher. She was a leader. She saw in an awkward kid a destiny that nobody else saw. Put in leadership terms, she had a vision. Then she set about investing the time and service necessary to put Will on a path toward that vision.
And the tool she used: Influence.
Make no mistake about it – Will has spent a lifetime of gratitude for the difference Mrs. Goodwin made in his life, and he has made it a point to let her know it. But her vision wasn’t about somehow earning his praise and gratitude. Her vision was about his potential, his destiny.
It’s also important to note that she didn’t limit her effort a few choice words in a formal classroom setting, important as that was. Above and beyond the fine print in her contract, Mrs. Goodwin invested her time in the man he was to become. And it took time.
Another Sphere of Influence
It was a bit of a surreal night, when nothing seemed to be in place. Jesus Christ and his twelve companions had gathered to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. The disciples should have sensed that something was up when they got to the upper room where the meal was to take place and no servant was available, as was the custom, to wash everybody’s feet.
Then the real weirdness started.
There was already a lot of tension in the air – a bit of a “says you” argument had erupted over (get this) who would be the greatest in the coming kingdom.
Meanwhile, as John describes it, Jesus knew something else that the others didn’t. He knew he would be returning to God, “having loved His own who were in the world (John 13:1, 3).
Jesus knew He would be doing more than just saying good-bye. He would leave these men, who were still arguing among themselves about their place at the table, in charge. This was a critical opportunity for influencing them by leaving them with both a precept and an example.
This was a leadership moment.
So Jesus got up in the middle of the meal, redressed himself as a servant, got a basin of water and began to wash filthy feet. Believe me, that changed the whole conversation.
Time was short, but Jesus never stopped being a teacher. He took advantage of the teachable moment in the Upper Room to give the disciples an example and lesson beyond their ability to fully comprehend it in the moment. This was a lesson for the long haul. This was influence that lasted longer than the word “good-bye.”
Here, with dirty water and a towel, is a picture of the radical love that would define the coming church. It was an outward example of self-giving ministry. The vision: to reproduce an army of servants.
Again, it started with a vision, followed by the investment of time and service to put these disciples on a path toward that vision.
The tool He used: Influence.
Jesus modeled for the disciples what they later were to model in leadership situations of their own. Then he expressly told them, “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (v. 14). There you see the three factors of influence: example, precept, and persuasion.
More Than a Sales Job
Ask anybody what leadership is, and the most common definition or description is influence. In the words of John Maxwell, “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.”
True, but everything we call influence isn’t always leadership. If you come to my used car lot convinced you’re going to buy a Toyota and I persuade you that a Ford is the best deal on the lot, I may have influenced you. But did I lead you?
I don’t think so, because the chances are, I may never see you again.
However, if you had a grand old time buying cars from me and decided to come hang out and watch what I do, then help me do it, then ask me to teach you the principles and techniques of sales, then I have become your leader.
Example. Precept. Persuasion.
That’s exactly what Jesus did, repeatedly. His first recorded words to His disciples were, “Follow me.” That’s example.
He taught them extensively – especially after they encountered a teachable moment. That’s precept.
He also passionately challenged them to embrace an entirely new way of life, based on radical faith and love. That’s persuasion.
More Than Charisma
There’s a shortcut to influence that many people in positions of leadership attempt, and it often works in the short run. Just make yourself the center of the organization’s focus. Hurl enough charm and force of personality around to become the driving force.
In the long run, that’s a recipe for mediocrity. While a strong, charismatic leader can inspire and arouse passion and commitment, what happens when Mister Charisma is no longer on the scene? Often what you find in the wake of such a leader is a crippled organization, completely dependent on being charmed and told what to do.
The test of how effectively you have influenced others through your leadership begins once you leave. Are people still following your example? Are they still living by what you taught them? Are you still persuading them, even when you’re not around? That is leadership. That is influence.
The moment of truth for Jesus as a leader came when He decided to give birth to a new generation of servants rather than call attention to his own authority or glory. He had the right to do either. But what He chose was to lay aside concerns about his imminent suffering and reach past His time on earth to influence a room full of soon-to-be leaders.
As a leader, if you haven’t prepared those you lead to embrace a mission and vision beyond you and your direct contact, then you have yet to discover what influence means. (If you’re a parent, you should probably read that sentence again, out loud.)
Are You Saying This Takes Time?
Ding ding ding! You get it!
Look at it this way. In his short ministry, Jesus could heal and perform miracles in a matter of seconds. He could teach in a matter of minutes. But to prepare a team of new leaders who would turn the world upside down, he took three and a half years.
Modeling. Teaching. Motivating.
Example. Precept. Persuasion.
Here’s the sober side of leadership influence: long-term influence takes time and extraordinary patience. Neither of those commodities is valued highly in the get-it-done-now environments of boards of directors, shareholders, or would-be charismatic leaders.
Hey, nobody said leadership was easy.
As a leader, your job is not to attract people to yourself as an end in itself. And it’s certainly not to make them dependent on you, tempting as that may be. Can you imagine how messed up it would be if Will loved Mrs. Goodwin so much he just kept wanting to repeat sixth grade over and over?
Your job as a leader is to reproduce yourself in the lives of future leaders who will then repeat the process, whether you’re still in the picture or not.
At any given time, you have a choice. You can influence people to buy into your greatness, or you can take the time to influence them to believe in their own. One form of influence can make you a star if you’re good enough to pull it off. The other will make you a leader.
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