Most people say they’re above-average drivers, have above-average looks, above-average intelligence and are above-average in their professions. Psychologists call this self-enhancement. Mathematicians call it impossible. But it’s said to be at an all-time high today, particularly in the young-adult generation. A whopping 94 percent of college students think they have above-average leadership skills, according to David Brooks, from an interview with Fareed Zakaria.
This is problematic, because if you think you’re better at something than you really are, you’re less likely to work at it. You expect it to come easily to you. But that makes you less likely to succeed. Most men who play in the NBA will tell you it was really hard to get there – they’ll tell you of great coaches, years of strenuous practice sessions, grueling off-season training, special diets and more. The guys who thought it’d be easy, for the most part, they’re gone. It’s been found that college students with inflated views of themselves are more likely to fail courses or even drop out of school. (Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic, Free Press, 2009)
It applies to leadership in anything, not just basketball. Good intentions are never enough. To become a leader, you must first have some idea of what it means to be a leader, and then you need to do the hard work to get there. Whether you’re still in college or you’ve already launched your career, your current circumstances can be the training ground for future successes. If leadership is what you aspire to, what can you do today, regardless of your circumstances, to move in that direction? Let’s examine three characteristics of leaders and some practical ways to develop these qualities.
1. A leader must strive for excellence. On the one hand, God alone knows whether your aspirations for leadership will be realized – that is, whether the external circumstances of your life and work will be transformed in the way you hope. You might do everything “right” and still be overlooked. Our external circumstances are not necessarily a barometer of whether our lives are pleasing to God – sometimes the wicked prosper, while God’s best servants faithfully toil in obscurity, like Joseph in a jail cell in Egypt (see Psalm 73 and Genesis 40).
Remember that God’s timetable may be different from yours, and be faithful with what He’s given you right now, while also striving to be a wise steward of your current growth opportunities. The Bible says that whatever your hand finds to do, you should do with all our might (Ecclesiastes 9:10). And that in everything you do, “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23–24). That means that in serving your “human masters” (your bosses or professors) you are actually serving Jesus Christ. So do it with excellence, as best you can.
Paul gives us an example of godly striving — an ambition to accomplish much for Christ. He made plans to go to Rome and then Spain and to continue his church planting among the unreached (Romans 15:20–24). He spoke of being zealous for good works (Titus 2:14) and said this zeal should mark us all. In the Parable of the Talents, the mere preservation of one’s talent brought scorn and reproof. The Master, it turns out, expected an increase, a return on investment (Matthew 25:14–30). To whom much is given, much is expected (Luke 12:48).
So go ahead and aspire to achieve great things for God’s glory. Don’t equate humility with mediocrity. There’s a subtle, yet significant difference between seeking to make a name for yourself and seeking to make a name for Christ. When we’re obedient, diligent and fruitful stewards of the gifts and opportunities God gives us, we honor God. Titus 2:10 talks about our lives adorning the gospel message — making it look beautiful in the eyes of others. Christians are called to excellence in all that they do. Excellence is both attractive to others and inherently valuable. Therefore, those who excel are often placed in positions of authority or influence (so they can motivate others to excel).
2. A leader must think clearly. We tend to think of leaders as good communicators, able to rally people around a vision. That’s true, but before leaders can be good communicators, they must first become clear thinkers. Clear thinking is marked by the ability to reason in your own mind from A to B to C, to know where you stand on something and why you take that position. If you want to become a better speaker or writer, know that lack of clarity in expression generally begins with muddled thinking.
So how do you become a better thinker? It starts with curiosity and desire, refusing to let a mere surface-level grasp of a topic satisfy you. But these are not enough. It means not getting so caught up in the details that you lose sight of the big picture, but instead train your mind to focus first on the big picture and then on how the big picture relates to the details. It also means wrestling to identify areas of confusion so that you can articulate them to others and get help. It means striving to follow the trace of an author’s argument when you’re reading.
To really think well requires concentration, the determination and discipline to turn off the noise and force your mind to chew at something for an extended period of time, to repeatedly go after it, step by step, until you’ve grasped it for yourself at a deep level. Attention spans are often short in our day of information and social media bombardment. But to become a good thinker, you’ll need to persevere in undistracted, unhurried mental labor.
As a professor, I have occasionally seen groups of unfocused students ostensibly gathered to work. The meeting soon degenerates into a chorus of conversation interrupted with cell phone vibrations announcing the up-to-the-minute happenings of a thousand other friends. Not surprisingly, such “study” groups tend to be academically unhelpful, as some students confuse activity for learning, while others assume that merely following the smart kid’s explanation means they’ve learned it, too. Not enough thinking.
3. A leader must combine humility with boldness and realism with optimism. I’ve lost track of how many poor math students have told me they’re really good at math. Unfortunately, their blind and misguided self-confidence prevents them from actually improving. Other people despair of ever getting better at a particular skill, like public speaking. Failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because improvement is impossible if you think it is.
So gladly own your shortcomings. Deflecting blame to circumstances or other people often gives temporary relief, but external factors alone rarely explain what happened, and blame-shifting never helps us improve. But don’t dwell on your past failings. Be realistic about where you’re at and what improvement would look like, and then get busy. Success tends to be 99 percent perspiration; and others who seem more advanced today may just have already put in that time and effort.
However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that to be successful you have to be good at everything. No, we all have unique talents — a few innate qualities that predispose us to be unusually strong in certain areas, far more than we will ever be (even with great practice) in other areas. It takes humility to grasp this — that there are some things I will never be particularly good at, no matter how hard I try. How to identify the difference between something that you just aren’t good at now (but will get much better at over time) and something you’ll never get very good at is too big a subject for this article. It’s unpacked in Marcus Buckingham & Donald Clifton’s classic book Now, Discover Your Strengths, and is the basis for the widely used StrengthFinders test. Their basic idea is that a strength is the result of talent, knowledge and skill. The first one is innate (God-given), the second two are what we muster over time. For example, someone who’s naturally good at making connections with people needs very little knowledge and skill to become a good salesperson. So the key is to identify our talents and then expose ourselves to opportunities to hone these talents into strengths – things that we’re exceptionally good at. Since nobody has every talent, nobody will have every strength. We excel by working as much as possible in our areas of strength and thereby working around or managing our weaknesses.
What successful people do is play to their strengths; that is, to the extent possible, they avoid those things that weaken them and give themselves maximum exposure to areas in which they’re strong. Bill Gates is a genius at software innovations, but he found that the day-to-day operation of a large company drained him. So he selected a partner, Steve Ballmer, to oversee Microsoft while he returned to software development.
If you have the option, maybe you too need to delegate certain tasks to others, empowering them in an area of their strength while freeing you to focus on yours. But it could also mean tweaking your job (to the extent possible) so that you’re spending more time in your areas of strength. It might mean pursuing a transfer to a job that makes greater use of what you’re naturally good at and what you’re therefore more likely to get really, really good at over time.
There’s a final aspect of bold humility: a willingness to learn from everyone, both those who seem better than you and those who don’t. Part of it may be realizing they just have different talents and strengths than you do. On group projects, seek to serve and help your team members make their best contributions (for example, by dividing up tasks, as much as possible, along the lines of people’s strengths). Remember that their success is your success; in fact, much of success is about being instrumental to the success of others. Be about the good of the team and the success of the project, not grabbing credit for yourself. Those who serve, lead.
Leaders are not like everyone else. For one, they don’t settle for mediocrity. They strive for excellence. So be willing to work hard. Don’t neglect time alone for focused, intentional thinking about a particular problem or endeavor, or perhaps a professional relationship that isn’t quite working. Ask yourself what can be done differently or if there’s anything you may be missing.
But it also means working smart. As you experience setbacks, identify your shortcomings specifically. If you fail in areas which overlap with your natural talents and interests, assess what went wrong, take responsibility, work hard to get better, and over time you should improve greatly. But if you fail in areas of weakness, seek to work around this kind of activity as much as you can. Play to your strengths.
Finally, seek to serve and learn from everyone. Be useful. Help others and the team succeed, and so will you.
There is more to a leader than a striving for excellence, clear thinking, bold humility and realistic optimism. More, but not less. Start here and you’ll be on your way.
Copyright 2011 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved.