Try this: close your eyes, and for the next 30 seconds do not think about a pink elephant. Remember, you are not to think of a pink elephant.

Ready, set, go.

How far did you make it? And what does that tell you about the way the mind works?

Some of the most powerful influences in our lives are invisible, sometimes very small, often hypothetical. Ideas. They fill our minds, they motivate our actions. They shape how we view reality and—just as important—possible new realities.

Ideas are also at the core of spiritual influence. They are powerful realities that move invisibly from one person to another. They change and develop. It is almost like they have a life of their own. Leaders should always be asking, "What are the very best ideas I can flow to others? Is there one big idea God has influenced me with that ought to be the big idea I pass on to others?

Planting the seminal idea

When we think of the great leaders of the past, we may remember their accomplishments, but just as likely we remember some great idea—a seminal idea—which dominated their lives and drove them to accomplish the great thing. Seminal, from the Latin word for seed, means something so compelling that it has a profound influence on others. The seminal idea sprouts and grows, and then it bears fruit. It gives life. The seminal idea spreads its own seed in hidden places. It infiltrates. It may subvert. It has the potential to prevail.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s seminal idea was that all people are owed the same respect because they have the same God-given dignity. Abraham Lincoln was compelled by the seminal idea that the union of the states could not be broken. Winston Churchill championed the seminal idea that tyranny should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

The fourth-century bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo was later called "the doctor of grace" because he stood against the works righteousness that was taking over many churches of his day. Augustine did not see himself as inventing that idea, but as passing along a principle core to the gospel of the New Testament. Eleven centuries after Augustine, Martin Luther gave voice to the same seminal idea, making his emphasis the free gift of a right relationship with God through Christ.

Closer to our own time, Billy Graham preached to millions of people, delivering the same seminal idea: God's forgiving love in Christ is available to all. John Stott traveled the world planting the seminal idea that faithful biblical teaching is what preserves orthodox Christian faith. Robert Pierce founded the humanitarian organization World Vision on the seminal idea that Christian faith requires a practical response to the physical sufferings of people in the world.

Has God placed a central conviction, a seminal idea in you that ought to be the substance and force of your influence in the lives of others? Some leaders know what their seminal idea is. Others are looking for it. Of course, God may give any one person more than one big idea or ideal. But as a practical matter, leaders do need to figure out how to have focus in what they do. And if there is one compelling idea—a burning passion, an ache, a driving conviction, a picture of a better world you cannot get out of your mind—then perhaps that is a seminal idea God has called you to.

Making space for idea growth

So how do we go about deepening the thoughtfulness in our leadership, no matter the setting? And how do we promote intellectual integrity and growth among the people we work with? How do we discover and support the best seminal idea possible? This is not a matter of IQ, but of choice and discipline.

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