A few years ago I was meeting with someone for the first time. We got off to a bumpy start with my first question.
“OK, so you consider yourself a leader. What does that mean?”
He told me that he was “in charge.”
“In charge of what?”
“My company.” He was frowning now. He had no idea that things were just going to get worse.
“Yeah? What does that mean? You walk into the office building and your company does what?”
He began talking about how people would jump when he gave them orders. He described the resulting bustle of activity that was his ultimate charge. When I continued to inquire as to what he actually did all day long, he began to tell me about the meetings with “his” people.
“Oh, you’re in charge of the people,” I concluded.
“Yes, I suppose I am” He smiled at the simple reality of his power.
I thought for a minute. “So what?” He stopped smiling.
We continued to explore what leadership actually meant for this man. The breakthrough finally came when I asked this simple two part question. “Where are you leading these people, and why?”
After a lengthy and good-spirited banter, I pushed my point. Leadership doesn’t mean a thing unless it is tied to a cause. Leadership is not an achievement. It is an instrument. It is a tool for making change happen.
Simply, being “in charge” isn’t leadership. It’s an ego trip. When that is how we see leadership, we are mostly concerned with our own self gratification through exerting power over others. We are in charge. We are in control. We are on top. We are important. We are better.
We are mistaken.
Leadership is not merely about communication, influence, supervision, or power. Leadership is primarily about passion.
Sure all of those other things are part of leadership, but I am most concerned with people’s passionate dedication to making a difference. I have said it many times in class (and to basically anybody who will look me in the eye). “Leadership is not an end in itself. It is merely the means to an end. Where you lead people and why – now that’s worth talking about.”
Most of the best leaders I know, don’t really care if people are following them or not. They are not preoccupied with who is behind them. They are intensely focused on what is in front of them. Leadership is a role most passionate change agents end up assuming rather reluctantly. Most of them don’t really want to be leaders. They just want to make a difference. Being a leader merely comes with the territory.
I recently watched Gandhi again and was reminded how true this is. I was moved by Gandhi’s reluctance to be an “official leader.” He understood that he would have actually had to give up power in order to become a public official. He didn’t want his ability to change the state of his milieu diminish by becoming a ‘leader.’ So, rather than becoming the Prime Minister of the burgeoning government, he chose to make a difference in a greater way. He chose to stay focused on his passion, correcting one injustice at a time.
Before we focus so much on the “hows” of leadership, I propose that we take a harder look at the “why’s”. Why do we want to lead? Where do we want to take people? What is the destination of our passionate journey? What is the cause to which we are committed? I suggest three very simple steps for establishing true leadership.
1) Commit to the cause.
It is the dedication to our purpose that will keep us going. People can be a source for energy. They can also be a depleater of it. In the end, it is our passion for making a difference that will get us out of bed on those tough mornings.
2) Let others join the cause.
They will. If we are dedicated to a worthy cause and committed to making a positive change, people will want to be part of it. Even more importantly, they are the people we need. They are as committed to the cause as we are.
3) Collaborate to better the cause.
Once we have people who have joined us because they are dedicated to the same cause, an intense momentum develops. At this point collaboration has less to do with conflict and almost everything to do with mission. If we are passionately dedicated to the same cause, we will be amazed at how little conflict actually arises. And when it does, we are equally committed to the outcome. We become partners in every since of the word.
As we contemplate how to become better leaders, let’s spend less time considering methods of influence, communication styles, and management techniques. Instead, focus intently on the burden God has placed in our hearts. What injustice do we see that must be corrected? What is broken that we simply have to fix? What haunts us in the middle of the night? These are the things that create leaders. These are the things that matter.
Years ago, I used to teach high school. On the back wall of my classroom, just under the clock, I pinned a sign that simply read “So What?” It was my constant reminder that I was responsible for students, not content. Everything I taught had to make a difference. My mission wasn’t to instruct young people, it was to inspire them. I wanted them to leave my classroom believing that they could make difference. I wanted them to leave my classroom believing that they had to make a difference.
Not much has changed in 30 years.