How do I become a leader?”

How do I become a leader?” Several people have asked me that question. That’s usually in relation to the church, but has come in other settings, as well.

We use the word “leader” most often for two particular roles: (1) person who sits at the decision-making table, (2) person entrusted with the most visible and public roles.

And we often address the “become a leader” question with a program or an application. Attend this training, and you’ll become a leader. Or fill out this application to be on our leadership team. That has some merit to it. But it hardly guarantees that you’ll be a true “leader” on the other side. Nor does it guarantee that the people who went through the training or application process are the best people to put in decision-making or public positions.

My simple, two-step process to becoming a leader:

1) Participate

Leadership starts with participation. For a few reasons…

a) Participation itself is leadership training. Our community has discipleship groups called catechesis groups. We believe the primary training for leading a group is to participate in a group. Nothing will help someone understand the nature of these groups better than participating in one.

We see this in American society when we celebrate mailroom to boardroom stories. A friend of mine who started working at a bank said that his bank requires everyone to start as a teller. “You need to know how the front lines work before you do anything else.” Before someone is making important decisions for others or leading in a public role, it helps to know what it’s like to be on those “front lines.” This leads to the second reason…

b) Participation reflects buy-in. In our community, we wouldn’t consider having someone lead in a public role until we have seen a lot of behind-the-scenes faithfulness. Don’t ask to lead in worship if you haven’t put in some good time helping with worship setup, in the nursery, or in one of those other areas of high need. We expect our leaders to be servant leaders, and models of the kind of leadership we need. That means filling the most-needed roles before filling the most-coveted roles.

See “What are you passionate about?” for more along these lines.

c) Participation allows you to see places where you can lead. The more you participate, the more you see real areas of need and opportunity. You may be able to recognize these areas from the outside, but in several instances, your perspective will change once you get more involved. Once you’re participating, you may understand the reasons your ideas from the outside wouldn’t work. Or you may see the real needs, rather than just perceived, surface-level items.

2) Initiate

Leadership requires initiation. If you can’t initiate, you can’t lead. To be clear, that’s okay. If you’re great at taking a list of tasks and accomplishing them, you can be a great asset in a number of places. You are a highly valued servant/follower/assistant! We need many more people like you.

If you want to be a leader, that’s a good starting point. Can you be trusted to do a task you’ve committed to? If not, go back and start there. If you’re already a trusted servant/follower/assistant, now add initiative to it, and you’re becoming a leader.

Initiative in a few forms:

a) “I’ll figure it out.” Here’s simple initiative. One of our volunteers found me on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago and asked, “Do you know who’s picking up the donuts?”

I have no idea how donuts get to us every Sunday morning, but I stood up and grabbed my phone to try to find out. “No, sit down,” he said, “If you don’t know, I’ll figure it out.” I don’t know what he did after that, but I saw donuts later that day.

I’ll figure it out” is initiative. It says that you’re willing to take responsibility for more than a checklist. You’ll take the next steps to find a solution.

b) Initiative also comes in this form: “Have we ever thought about _______?  I’d be happy to help make it happen, if you think it’s an option.” 

Sometimes it doesn’t even happen that clearly. It’s subtle, behind-the-scenes, almost-unnoticed culture shaping. Sometimes it’s a simple, “Here, I made this” (of course, only when it’s okay that you didn’t ask permission…)

I’ve told our community several times that our vision is limited right now. I don’t dare to paint too much of a vision about five years from now. Because our vision involves a community. It’s about all of us bringing together our passions and gifts. We are who we are today because of a number of people who aren’t even with us anymore. Their contributions outlasted their time with us. And who they made us is different than what we would have planned in a “strategic visioning session.”

We are who we are today because of Andrew’s desire to teach our kids to pray and worship together, and because of his desire for an adult in the community to speak to those kids each week as valued members.

We are who we are today because Jason and Sarah called us to be a community that made sure it included both genders throughout its leadership.

We are who we are today because Adam was determined to give people the warmest welcome possible and because Anna was determined to get them around a table together.

And we will be who our next leaders help us become.

c) If you’re at a loss for where to start, initiative can even come in this simplest of forms. It can be the initiative to learn from a mentor. “I want to grow as a leader. Would you help me find a mentor? I’m willing to do anything they/you think would be a helpful next step.”

And of course, if you’ve already been participating and initiating in a number of ways, but there are more leadership opportunities you aspire to, you can certainly initiate a conversation about those. Go to the right person and tell them you’re interested in more.

 

Essential Qualifications

These won’t make you a leader, but you can’t lead (or shouldn’t) without them.

  • Holiness — You can be the greatest speaker, decision-maker, creator, organizer, or motivator the world has ever seen, but if your life isn’t a model of holiness, you shouldn’t be leading. Not in the church, at least. An essential question for our leaders: “How is your heart today?”
  • Servanthood — Yes, the Bible refers to disciples and servants much more than it refers to leaders. And we need disciples and servants more than we need leaders. If you are not a model servant, don’t presume to be a leader. That is, if you haven’t demonstrated that you can care for others and set their interests above your own, you’re going to have difficulty being a good leader. At least in the church, when we say “leader,” we need to presume that “servant” is a part of the definition.
  • Trustworthiness — If we can’t rely on you to make your actions match your words (integrity) and to make your words match your actions (honesty), we can’t have you leading us.

One thought on “How do I become a leader?”

  1. A further note — I identified leaders as those either (a) sitting at the decision-making table or (b) entrusted with the most visible and public roles. But many leaders have different roles from either of those. They’re the people entrusted with responsibility, even if not publicly seen. They’re the people who shape culture and decisions, even if they’re not the ones sitting at a particular table. They may be “thought leaders” who propose different ways of thinking and thus shape how others think and act.

    That also makes this “choose yourself” age of media and opportunity so fun. We don’t need to wait until someone puts us at the right table or entrusts us with the right public role. We have lots of options to create opportunity for ourselves. In fact, I’m wary of the person who complains that they could be a great leader if someone would just give them a chance. That indicates to me that they haven’t taken the initiative to create their own opportunity. If we’re waiting around for someone else to make us a leader, we may not have learned the initiative that real leadership requires.

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