Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Leadership

How Do I Know If I Am a Leader?

I recently discovered pictures of my fiftieth high school reunion. I did not go this past September, but I saw a few online images. Everyone looked so old! I am guessing it would have been different if I was there in person. Pictures don’t always tell the truth. Right?

Had I been there, I am sure people would have made comments like, “How do you keep yourself looking so young?” “I recognized you the moment you walked in.” “You certainly underscore the truth that the sixties are the new forties.” “Are you still running marathons?” “Are you thinking about starting a family?”

Yes—in my dreams. It’s like the story of the woman who made an appointment with a dentist, only to realize that this balding, gray-haired man with the deeply lined face was someone she once dated in high school. But it couldn’t be. How could this geezer, by comparison, look so much older? After probing, she exclaimed, “You were in my class!” Stepping back, he adjusted his glasses and asked, “What did you teach?”

Reflecting on my graduating class, I remember it had its share of leaders—Bob, Mary, Bill, Anna (though I did not recognize any in the pictures). They led teams, clubs, movements, rallies, and occasional food fights. I was one of them. Like others, leadership just seemed to be in one’s bones. I was the class milk monitor in second grade, one of the patrol boy lieutenants in fifth grade, junior high vice president in eighth grade, class president in ninth grade, and student body president in twelfth grade. Leadership was a natural expression. As Leonard Sweet puts it, leadership comes with one’s “psychological territory.” For certain ones, leadership is part of their inner being. They are directional in their bearing and influential in their decisions. You know it when you see it.

But what if it is not in one’s inner being? Can one be a leader if the gift is not somehow encoded in one’s DNA? This is one of the questions I wrestle with in the third chapter of my upcoming book on leadership, Missing Voices (Langham Publishing). Lots of leadership books take exception to the idea that one must possess the gift in order to lead. The bookstore is full of books which tell us leadership can be learned. Gravitas can be gained over years of reading, exploring, discovering, and experiencing. It is not conveyed in some gene. Those who believe such things believe in myths. (But then, these leadership coaches are selling books!).

Some would say that there are others means to acquiring leadership. It might be a dramatic summons. There are numerous examples of men and women “subpoenaed” by the circumstances. When John F. Kennedy was asked how he became a heroic leader, he replied: “They sank my boat.” Gideon in the Old Testament also comes to mind. He was a simple wheat thresher, the youngest of a no name tribe—until God thrusted him on stage to lead. He did this with others–Abraham, Moses, Jonah, and the disciples, none of whom would seem to fit Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory of leadership. They were simple shepherds, farmers, and fishermen who were called into existence by the circumstances.

The main requirement here is to listen. Maybe this is your story.

There are others, like Kim Jong Un, who attribute their leadership to a divine inheritance. Mount Paektu straddles the border separating North Korea and China, and from this mountain, encompassing Heaven Lake, many believe leadership has been imparted. The Kim dynasty has ruled with this conviction. Each successive head of state has been favored with mystical, magical powers of leadership. This is why Kim Jong Un views himself as uniquely blessed with vision, diplomatic savvy, and military genius. This is his destiny.

No wonder he keeps the world on edge!

Do you see yourself as a leader? If so, how do explain it? A special gift? Years of learning? A dramatic summons? Something inherited? All of the above? We have to sort this out. There is a shortage of true leaders.

After observing and practicing leadership, I am more and more convinced it is a mix. Leadership is a spiritual gift according to Scripture. This requires a careful assessment. But every true leader must also learn the art, and this always includes time in the wilderness. And if we are listening, there will be those occasional summons to step up, where our only choice is to lead.



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