Sometime back, John Dickerson wrote an article in The Atlantic entitled, “The Hardest Job in the World.” He was addressing the American presidency and the impossibility of leading. How can anyone truly represent 327 million people, let alone hope to please any of them? How can one person manage an executive branch now numbering two million employees? Who can endure the relentless scrutiny of the digital age? The daily scorn. The butt of nightly comedy routines. The personal threats. The journalistic abuse.
A president has to kiss babies, console widows, welcome championship teams to the Oval Office, and set legislative agendas. Worse, one must live with the paradox that though this leader might be the most powerful person on earth, this same person is relatively powerless to achieve any of one’s personal goals.
After studying, teaching, and now writing on leadership, I’ve discovered that whatever the context, it’s not easy to be a leader. Oh, and thirty-three years in the role of Lead Pastor reinforced this sense of desperate helplessness. Leading people forward can often feel hopeless and overwhelming. Just leading one’s kids can feel like the hardest job in the world. Sometimes, I can’t even get my dog to come.
Writing about leadership has its own challenges. Stephen King once likened the task of writing fiction to crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. I wonder what he would say to writing about leadership. Bathtub might be too expansive and the Atlantic Ocean too short.
I have devoted the past fifteen months to writing on the subject. Thankfully, my mind is still basically intact. If the editors are not too severe, the book will come out in late April (Missing Voices, Langham Publishers). The next few blogs are intended to whet your appetite (unless of course, you have as much interest in leadership as you have in Dewey Decimal Systems or details about the royal baby’s gender).
Part of the challenge is the discovery that most everyone has his/her own definition of leadership. Someone pointed out there are almost as many definitions as there are people trying to define it. And no wonder. Leaders are often complex. Consider Manchester’s opening description of Winston Churchill. Speaking of England’s most singular statesman, he noted that he was “a brilliant, domineering, intuitive, inconsiderate, self-centered, emotional, generous, ruthless, visionary, megalomaniacal, and heroic genius who inspires fear, devotion, rage, and admiration among his peers.” Or reflect upon speechwriter Ray Price’s description of American President Richard Nixon: “Exceptionally considerate, caring, sentimental, generous of spirit, kind…angry, vindictive, ill-tempered, and mean spirited.” So much for definitions.
Still, I have come to conclude there are three essential components: a leader is someone who has followers, influence, and direction. My guess is that anyone you look to for leadership has all three of these. Larger than life leaders like Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henrietta Mears attracted followers, used their influence to change the world, and pursued a course that people were willing to journey. Think Ernest Shackleton or Golda Meir. Think Jesus!
Here’s who I am thinking about. Joe Brooks. Joe who? I met Joe Brooks when I was just a week into high school. He called me out of a crowd and told me I needed to get up every morning and run five miles, and then after school, run twelve to fifteen more. He challenged me to run at least one hundred miles a week—for the next four years of high school. He pushed me to run so hard I regularly threw up at the end of races. We trained all summer in valley heat that averaged 90 degrees. We ran up and down mountains, endless bleacher stairs, and every conceivable cross country course. We won a state championship, though no one but a few parents noticed. Who comes to watch people run and vomit?
But I came, and I ran—because Joe Brooks was a leader.
See yourself as a leader? Ask yourself—”Is anyone following me?” (family members and dogs do not count). How would someone define your impact? Are you directional? Do people know where you are going?