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9 Unconventional Leadership Lessons

lessons learnedI don’t pretend to be an expert on leadership. In some ways I don’t even like the use of leadership language. However, over the past few weeks I have been asked several times about my own leadership development. What did my personal rhythms of study look like? What patterns of spiritual discipline did I follow? What leadership lessons have I learned over the years? And what advice would I give to a young “leader” today?

The following list is the result of my own reflection on each of these questions. I have thought about the activities and practices that have shaped me the most over the past three decades. These lessons are simply descriptive of my own journey. While some of them may not fit who you are, I wish someone had shared each of these with me many years ago.

1.  Focus less attention on being a great “leader” and more on being a great follower – especially of Jesus.

I wish I would have spent much less time reading the latest, popular “leadership” book and spent more time discovering what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. What does it really mean to become more and more like Jesus? What does it look like in your life to die to self? And what are the implications of being a true servant, rather than a leader? We need to admit that too much of church leadership culture is taken from the business world, and not from the Bible. Before you read another “leadership” book, read UnLeader by Lance Ford. And in an overarching sense, be less “church-centric” and more “Christ-centric.” Focusing too much attention on the programs and activities of the church inevitably leads to pragmatism and reliance on human ingenuity, which unfortunately includes the misguided way we understand Christian leadership.

2.  Focus on your spiritual formation.

Spend more time emphasizing the formation of your heart, over the transfer of information to your head. Be sure to carve out significant time for reflection. Create margin in your life where you can be alone and reflect on how God is shaping and forming you. But also make certain that much of your reflection is done in the company of others. You must have intentional, yet informal conversations with others, whereby struggles and victories can be shared openly; especially around missional engagement. I am convinced that an often-missing piece of the discipling process is the lack of communal reflection.  We are “discipled” as we share with others how the Spirit is forming our hearts as we engage God’s mission. Discipleship is a relational, communal activity. But you must have margin in your life to allow that to take place.

3.  Focus less time on cultivating your speaking skills and more time on becoming a great listener.

You will discover that many of the mistakes you make relationally, will be because you didn’t listen well. Listen to understand. Listen closely to God. Listen to your community. Listen to others. Additionally, become a good networker with other kingdom-minded people, and listen well to what they are doing in your city.  

4.  Discover opportunities to teach.

One of the very best, and earliest disciplines for my spiritual growth involved teaching; Sunday school classes, small groups, and eventually courses at two different colleges. Most teachers will tell you that you never learn more than when you prepare to teach others. If you don’t enjoy teaching, or do not believe you are gifted in that area, engage in some form of study or education that forces you to dig deep into subjects. I have found this also to be true while working on three college/seminary degrees.

5.  Cultivate a rhythm of writing.

Similar to teaching, writing forces you to integrate and clarify ideas. Develop a regular pattern of writing; perhaps begin to blog or post notes on Facebook where others have the opportunity to read and respond, or maybe simply start to journal for your own edification. Regardless, create some avenue to write on a daily, or at least weekly basis.

6.  Don’t allow a critical spirit to foster.

Further, don’t confuse a prophetic calling with a critical spirit. A prophet sees what is wrong, and calls it out for the purpose of having things change for the better. A critical spirit is simply that – critical, condemning and cynical. Nothing is gain by being critical of someone in ministry that does things differently than you do. A critical spirit serves no one. I am not sure if this adage originated with Alan Hirsch, but I heard it first from him; “The best critique of the bad is the practice of the better.” We would all do well to repeat that to ourselves at least once a day.

7.  Operate out of an attitude of abundance, not scarcity.

A mentality of scarcity fosters hoarding, stinginess, jealousy and fear of failure. You can’t grow as a leader and live out of a posture of scarcity. Instead believe there is plenty for everyone. Be generous. Be open-handed. Welcome competition. Embrace risk. Think the best of people, and imagine the best is yet to come.

8.  Set aside time for personal wellness.

Schedule time every day to focus on your health. If you intend to be available to invest in the lives of others, you need to be willing to invest in your physical health just as you would your spiritual health. Wellness is not merely about quantity of life, but quality. When healthy, you will have more energy both mentally and physically to serve others.

9.  Realize leadership development is a long process.

Be patient. God uses all of your experiences to form you into the leader you are, and will become. And in most cases the greatest opportunities for influence come in a later season of life. In the book, The Making of a Leader, author Robert Clinton uses the word “convergence” to speak of the stage of life where God brings all of our struggles and experiences together for maximum influence. It is the culmination of everything that God used in our lives to make us the person we are. The reality is that this season of convergence comes most often, after years of lessons learned. It is only now, after looking back over decades of life experiences that I see clearly how, and why God has led me to this place.


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