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When a Leader Doesn’t Know She’s a Leader

How to develop and encourage the emerging leaders around you

There are many potential leaders who don’t see their leadership potential, and the onus is on us to invite them—and to invite them well. Unfortunately, I’ve seen efforts to do this that were well-intentioned but not carried out well. One such example is an event I attended that finished with this message: “You might see these big names on stage, but leadership is not just for authors and megachurch pastors. God calls many to leadership. If you feel called to leadership, gather for a special leaders’ lunch today!”

When I later passed by the leaders’ lunch, all the expected people were there—and they should have been—but there were many people who weren’t there: people who wouldn’t self-select for leadership, people who had never seen a leader who looked or thought like them, people who had never been told they could lead, people who had been told they shouldn’t lead. When I say the onus is on us, it’s not only on us to invite them but to track them down, tell them what we see in them, champion them, remind them what we see in them, walk alongside them as they try and fail and try again. Our job is to invite them and keep inviting them.

To be honest, I’m a little wary of people who say they want to be leaders. Most great leaders I know didn’t choose to be leaders; they were motivated by what felt at first like insurmountable obstacles, personal baggage, or frustration with the status quo. And as they worked through their own stuff, they figured out something worth sharing.

I was never the kind of leader who wanted to lead. I had things to say that I wished someone had said to me, things to be that I wished someone had been to me, so I had no choice but to figure out a way to say and be them.

Great Leaders Are Often Overlooked

So if leadership sometimes emerges from angst and weakness, frustration and obstacles, where are we looking for emerging leaders? The one with the easy answers and the easy smile might dazzle us at first, but are we overlooking the awkward, the quiet, the odd, and the artsy?

Some of the best leaders I know were overlooked because they had a problem with authority or asked uncomfortable questions or tripped over their own tongues. Undoubtedly giftedness is good, and when equipped with a heart for service and a sense of personal need, a gifted leader is golden. But since giftedness has the potential to get in the way of a heart of service and sense of need, if I had to choose, I’d rather take a broken, selfless servant who needed to work on her communication skills than a vibrant preacher who had no need for God.

Let me tell you about a few leaders I know who didn’t know they were leaders:

Jen is a young mother who can at any moment provide a humorously self-effacing and detailed list of her own limitations. Ask her for her strengths and she’ll probably mention the speed with which she can list her weaknesses. She’s easily overwhelmed by tasks and emotions, and she often feels disorganized. But she’s overwhelmed because she sees so much and cares so much. Her house may be in disarray, but her kids are kind and creative. Because they have been around her their whole lives.

When Jen stepped into leadership of our missions team, she felt like she was in over her head and often wondered what on earth she was doing. She had no ability to set up a new ministry, make decisions, motivate people, or organize systems. But when I reminded her that missions is not about programs but relationships and taking Jesus to those who need him, she began to see things differently—that instead of disqualifying her, her sensitivity to others, her self-awareness and her insight make her highly valued as a missions leader. The things that feel to her like weakness—her awareness of her own failings, her willingness to laugh at herself, her comfort with her own humanity—these are the very traits that invite others into the mess of working in a mission that’s over our heads.

Dwayne is an ex-convict and recovering addict who wrestles with bipolar disorder. Some of his past choices have left their mark on his life and I get the feeling sometimes that they’re still nipping at his heels. So he knows his deep need for a Savior. It drives him to trust in God every moment and forces him to rely on his Christian community. It motivates him to reach out, with great compassion, to those who are where he once was, often at the risk of his own safety. When he works and sings and preaches, he is not working in his own strength. It’s a beautiful thing to see.

Hannah is a young woman in campus ministry. She takes time finding her words and often hangs back when there is someone else more confident in the group. She is often aware of how she doesn’t measure up but never more than when she sees how much she could know and experience God. She longs to live in him but is acutely aware of how little she understands. She regrets choices from her past and fears that their shadow still lingers. But when she hears about the same fears in others, she speaks with passion, granting them grace and spurring them on to goodness. Although she feels far from God, when we look in her face, we can see that she knows him and speaks from her own experience of his presence.

Regularly Encourage Potential Leaders

I don’t think one of these wonderful people would have gone to that lunch for leaders. People like this rarely put themselves forward; they wait for the people of God to see something in them. So when we do see something in them, we must call it out and annoy them with it. We need to say, “I see this in you.” And, “I’ve been where you are.”

And when they tentatively try something new, we need to say, “How did that feel? What did you learn? Don’t give up.” They need a note that says, “Thinking of you today as you preach!” or “How was it to lead your first meeting?”

We often confuse encouragement with compliments. But if we want to ensure that a movement doesn’t end with us, we must embrace a kind of purposeful encouragement, one that is not optional. How can we look for opportunities to praise? Not for the sake of puffing up egos but to point out the good God has put in his people for the sake of his church?

When a child finally does the thing her parents have been waiting for, the best parents do a little dance all around it, and the child is so delighted that she wants to do it again. How can we do a little dance around anything that looks like leadership, any way that someone displays a gift or takes on the mission or follows the call? If someone has sparked something good in us or our community, how can we return that good to them?

In my own experience, I received specific words from brothers and sisters in Christ that I wrote down and still return to often. These have been the difference between knowing the way forward and giving up. They are words like “I see Christ in you” or “Don’t give up; God has a purpose” or “Something you did revealed truth to me” or “Keep using that gift—it’s a blessing to the church.” How can we be like Paul, spurring his young leaders on to good works, calling out the gifts among the fellowship of believers?

Show Your Weakness

It’s not enough just to give leadership opportunities to emerging leaders. They need us to walk alongside them, process the challenges and frustrations with them, and help them recognize the lessons and possibilities.

Too often, when we realize we’re hogging all the leadership, in our efforts to share it we dump emerging leaders in the deep end, skipping the long and painful process of developing them, bypassing what’s often called the “leadership pipeline.” (There are plenty of resources about the stages of leadership development that have been helpful to me including The Leadership Pipeline, Multiplying Missional Leaders, and Exponential.) But one of the most memorable examples of leadership in my life came from a very unlikely place.

I was in that groggy state you can only reach on a flight across the Pacific. You know you’ve reached it when you’ll watch reality TV just to make the time pass. So I found myself watching the UK edition of What Not to Wear. (Okay, if I’m honest, I was actually enjoying it.) The hosts,

Trinny and Susannah, were doing their usual thing, explaining to their guest the best clothing for different body types. When they tried to describe the ways jeans fit around hips, they found words too limiting, so they did something unexpected—they whipped off their own jeans and stood in their underwear to show exactly what they were talking about.

I’m sure there was an element of showmanship going on—it’s good for ratings if the hosts strip down to their undies. But in an industry that’s all about looking good, it takes some courage to show the specific ways you don’t look good. Certainly Trinny and Susannah are attractive and healthy women, but when they grabbed pieces of their own flesh and said, “See this jiggly bit?” we could say, “Um, yes.” They’re TV presenters, not swimsuit models. In fact, they’re anti-models. A model stands at a distance and says, “You should be like me. Even though we all know that’s not going to happen.” Instead, these women were willing to be vulnerable in order to show that no one is perfect, not even TV personalities.

In light of all the negative stereotypes and unattainable beauty ideals that women face, this small act was a step in the right direction, a step that cost something. I may not reference these hosts often as leadership models, but there are many times when I’m opening my own life to those I lead that I remember that surprising reality TV scene.

Thankfully, our roles rarely call on us to bare our nakedness in a literal way. But as we develop those who are one step behind us, how do we welcome them into where we are in all its ordinariness? Are we willing to admit to our associate that our sermon just isn’t coming together? And even ask him to give input? Are we willing to start a meeting by saying, “I’m worn out. Could I ask you to pray for me?” I never feel like doing it. In fact, I hate doing it. But I choose to keep doing it because from it I’ve seen how the church can be the church, gathering around me, offering prayer and support. Even more than that, I’ve watched leaders realize they’re leaders.

They’ve seen that having a bad day (or week, or year) doesn’t disqualify us. They’ve seen that feeling stuck or confused or overwhelmed doesn’t disqualify us. They’ve seen that wrestling with personal issues and questioning God doesn’t disqualify us. They can say, “If Mandy can do it, anyone can!” It’s the kind of leadership model I need, so it’s the kind of leadership model I’m choosing to be.

Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. This article is taken from The Vulnerable Pastor; copyright 2015 by Mandy Smith. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.


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