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Guest Post: The Reluctant Leader

Leadership Development

Four random times this year I am asking a friend to guest write on my blog. I asked them because I think they are great thinkers as well as great writers. They will write an original article connected to my three guiding themes of Strategy | Leadership | Impact. 

Today Scott Kauffmann is our guest. 

Scott is a Partner and Content Lead for Praxis, a venture group for faith-motivated entrepreneurs. He served for eight years as a VP with Redeemer City to City, a leadership development agency for church planters, where he served as Tim Keller’s lead editor and content strategist. Scott began his career with 18 years at Accenture. He lives with his wife and two teenagers in Manhattan.

Contributed by Scott Kauffmann

What if you don’t think you’re a leader … but it turns out you are?

I remember that at some point during my teen years, my mom told me she thought I was going to make a good leader.

I thought: Maybe she’s being kind. Maybe this is a preemptive strike on my dad’s behalf. Maybe she learned with my three older brothers that she’s supposed to say this to sons.

Two things I did not think: She might be right.

And: Is it OK if she’s not?

Who is considered a leader? 

In contemporary Western culture, we’ve assembled a vast ecosystem around the topic of leadership. Uncountable millions of words have been written and hours spent to define, identify, recruit, parse, exhort, convert, and develop good leaders.

The first question, of course, is: Who’s a leader, anyway? Is leadership primarily defined by a position, a type of person, a set of behaviors, a self-image? Or something else?

Some define the leader class very inclusively. This approach supposes that anyone in a role with influence on others is a leader — a parent, a volunteer leader, a highly engaged student, a teacher, a manager or supervisor, even a charismatic and conscientious peer at work. Seniority qualifies: if you’ve developed some competence or life experience that makes you valuable in a civic, social, church, or work environment, you’re a leader. Influence qualifies: if you don’t have positional leadership but people listen to you, you’re a leader. Early promise qualifies: the letter-writing / student government perennial / club-starting high schooler is a leader. Even aspiration qualifies: if you think you are destined to be a leader one day, join the club.

This inclusive definition runs on a pragmatic “leaders are more made than born” mindset. And people lean toward the inclusive definition when they want to sell something to leaders or talk about their offering’s market size or impact.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a very exclusive definition, which is more about special gifts, elite status, and significant positional responsibility for large organizations or movements or schools of thought.

This exclusive definition runs on a heroic “leaders are more born than made” storyline. People lean into this one when they have something fancy to say or expensive to sell.

I’ve actively worked within both paradigms. Over my three-plus decades in the workforce, I’ve been part of many product and service initiatives that were designed, positioned, and messaged explicitly for leaders. I’ve seen the circle drawn very tightly — to C-level executives at Fortune 500 companies, for example — and at other times, very loosely. I’ve run the numbers, read the articles and books, written the copy, sat in the boardrooms, spoken at the seminars, built the training courses, rubbed elbows with the stars. I’ve spent a lot of time in this “who’s a leader, and why, and how” conversation.

And there’s only one constant: wherever the cut line is drawn at the bottom of the leader class, whether practically everybody’s a leader or practically nobody is, one thing’s for sure: you need to be above that line. If you’re not there, you need to be working to get there.

Because who doesn’t want to be a leader?

More people than you’d think, actually.

The reluctant leader

What interests me is not where the cut line is drawn, but the people who are the last ones to discover that they’re above the line.

I’m fascinated by that curious kind of person with no particular aspiration to positions of leadership. It’s the high performer who thinks of himself primarily as an expert, a craftsman, a specialist, an enthusiast. The charismatic influencer who thinks of herself primarily as a team player, a colleague, even a follower or servant. They’re willing to accept themselves within the inclusive definition of leadership — at some point, it just comes to you by default — but they don’t aspire to clear any more exclusive bar.

I’m not talking about people with that particular kind of humility, like the Level 5 Leaders in Jim Collins’s Good to Great, who are really saying in their hearts, “I’m a leader, but there’s nothing particularly special about me.” Nor even about false humility, which thinks, “I’m a leader, but I’d like you to convince me anyway.”

I’m not talking about those leaders who don’t make a strong first impression but who burn inside with belief: “I’m a leader, no matter what you think, and watch me prove it.”

I’m not talking about what happens when leaders inevitably experience failure and come to doubt their ability or decisions. Nor about Impostor Syndrome, which is when high-performing people can’t acknowledge their accomplishments and fear they will be exposed as frauds. The former is trying to accept failure, and the latter is trying to explain away success, but both are saying, “I’m a leader, but what if I’m not?”

No, the people I’m talking about find themselves one day saying, “I’m not a leader, and I’m fine with that, but what if I am?”

I think most people see reluctance to seek out leadership opportunities as some sort of faulty gene that works itself out of the population over time. And in that view, the only way a self-respecting talented person can solve the problem of reluctance is to strap on more ambition.

The wisdom of our age is that leadership is a function of ability + ambition + destiny. Whatever ability you might have, if for some reason you don’t have the ambition to be a leader — if you don’t want it — then you have to want to want it. You can’t wind up below that cut line.

In thinking of several reluctant leaders and entrepreneurs I’ve known, I don’t think this approach helps. It’s really difficult — perhaps futile — to make yourself want something you don’t want, solely under the power of what you and your community expect for you. It’s basically a form of self-deception, but most of us are too smart to believe ourselves. Instead, we get stuck inside our own limitations, self-absorption seeps into our imagination, our confidence drops. It’s a death spiral.

One friend, an insanely talented founder, put it this way: “For years I’ve simultaneously been obsessed with self-loathing for under-achievement and afraid of risking to achieve.” He sees no way out of the dilemma, and he certainly doesn’t get any help from the leadership literature.

Except that he knows Christianity is true. That’s the only way out.

Destiny vs. vocation 

This is one of those myriad places where the Christian gospel offers a unique and counterintuitive resource, a game-changing way forward. Because we view the equation of leadership not as ambition + ability + destiny, but as ambition + ability + vocation.

As Christians we believe God gives us the gifts for leadership (that’s ability); He gives us the desire for leadership (ambition); and He activates those gifts and desire with a personal, loving, specific call (vocation).

Vocation is different from destiny in at least two ways. First, destiny is impersonal. It doesn’t love you or want the best for you. It just bids you kneel and either rests its sword on your shoulders or hangs it over your head. You can’t reason with destiny or be in a relationship with it. It can’t be trusted, only obeyed.

Believing in destiny is better than believing in yourself, whom you can neither trust nor obey. But it’s nowhere near as good as believing in God, who deserves both your trust and obedience. That is the only place a leader can safely be.

The other big difference is that destiny requires you to succeed. But vocation doesn’t.

A cherished leader once told me I could be sure God was calling me to take a certain career step … but that I couldn’t know up front whether God was calling me to succeed or fail.

It was the most encouraging thing I could have heard at that moment.

The idea that God might be calling me to fail was a life-changing and life-giving insight. If God could be calling me to fail, even if I were to do everything in my power to succeed, it would hurt; it might make me feel worse about myself; and it certainly would make me feel I had let people down, which would be particularly crushing for me. But if I knew and could remember that this is what God was asking me to do for His purposes (granted, a big “if”), I could face that outcome with joy.

All that, plus God might actually be calling me to succeed instead! Which would be great, and it would give me peace in the opposite direction, because I’d know my success came from Him rather than from me. Either way, things went—success or failure—my ultimate identity wouldn’t rest on the outcome.

There’s another wrinkle to the way the Christian formula for leadership (ability + ambition + vocation) works out in the lives of reluctant leaders. This one has to do with sequence.

Usually, we experience the elements in the order of the formula: we demonstrate innate leadership ability from an early age, a natural inclination and desire to lead grows in us, then we sense God’s call to pursue, and be granted, a series of opportunities to lead people, movements, organizations. Ability, then ambition, then vocation.

But for reluctant leaders, our awareness of vocation often predates our ambition. That’s when we experience the moment I mentioned earlier: “I’m not a leader, and I’m fine with that, but what if I am?”

“Please send someone else.” 

In the account of the life of Moses, we are given a compelling picture of the reluctant leader. In Exodus 2, Moses’ life is miraculously preserved in a way that points to his vocation; yet his catastrophic first attempt at using his influence takes him out of the “leadership pipeline” for forty years. At the site of the burning bush, when God calls him to leadership, it’s an all-vocation, no-ambition moment for Moses (Exodus 3–4).

From his first words (“Here I am”), Moses is willing to be in a relationship with God but has no interest in God’s call to leadership. Five evasive questions into the conversation, Moses’ reluctance has hardened into defiance, at which God becomes angry. Moses finally accepts God’s vocation and goes on to become a fearless leader whom God calls to success (and failure!) over the next forty years.

For Moses, a reluctant leader, ambition comes after vocation. When I read this, I have a sense that Moses’ ambition comes from a place of greater integrity. It’s a gift God gives him for his obedience.

What’s challenging about the story of Moses is to see that his reluctance takes the shape of false and sinful humility. Every objection seems humble and reasonable, but read carefully and you see that Moses is preoccupied only with himself. Moses asks questions about Moses, and God gives answers about God.

We see this same dynamic at the beginning of the story of Jeremiah. He’s not as hard to convince as Moses, but God’s solution to his reluctance is the same. Jeremiah is thinking about his weaknesses; but God doesn’t say (as one of our friends might say to us, trying to stoke our ambition), “Are you kidding? Look at all your potential! You’ve got this!”

Instead, God only talks about what He has done. “I knew you … I set you apart … I appointed you … I command you … I am with you … I will rescue you … I have put my words in your mouth … I appoint you.”

If there’s a single lesson for reluctant leaders from the stories of Moses and Jeremiah, it is not “You’ve got this.” It is “I appoint you” (Jeremiah 1:10) and “Take this staff in your hand so you can perform the signs with it” (Exodus 4:17).

I was fascinated to hear Andy Crouch observe that in terms of outcomes, Jonah is the most successful prophet in the Bible and Jeremiah is the least successful. No one could receive a more unequivocal calling to leadership than Jeremiah, or a more conflicted calling than Jonah.

It appears that whether we are reluctant or ambitious in our leadership, whether we have enough ability to succeed or not, vocation trumps everything else. Not only does it beat destiny, it beats ambition, and it even beats ability. We don’t need to manufacture false ambition in order to be called, and we can’t even count on the sincerity of our response to ensure that we’ll be successful.

From reluctant to submitted 

For the reluctant leaders out there, and for those who love and lead them, here are some ways forward.

  1. Recognize that much of the humility at the heart of reluctant leadership is actually idolatry. Maybe it’s setting up such perfectionistic expectations for ourselves that we’re (rightfully) apprehensive we can meet them. Or it could be giving too much energy to replaying our experiences of failure. These are actually perverse forms of arrogance, not of humility. Sean Penn says it in the most important line from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

Or maybe your problem isn’t self-idolatry but world-idolatry — caring too much about what others might think, which hands the keys to our identity over to someone else. That’s the dark side of the gifts of empathy and other-centeredness. Without the gospel, we’re easily trapped inside this problem — but with the gospel, we can re-center our identity outside ourselves.

Tim Keller’s extraordinary short book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is the best source I’ve ever seen to deal with these issues.

  1. Embrace weakness in the gospel. Here’s what Paul (a bona fide high-ambition leader) says about an area of failure in his own life:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9–10, NIV).

  1. Seek accountability from people who understand your reluctant leadership. Be careful, though … you’re looking for an accountability partner, not just a cheerleader. They need to be able to say “God appointed you” (which is about His ability) with even more conviction than they say “You’ve got this” (which is about your ability).
  1. Obsession with mission will turn your focus away from yourself. A founder friend told me how this works in his life: “I’m motivated by helping protect people from being oppressed and stuck, not by driving my company into the big time. I feel no call or ambition to be big; I do feel called to help our clients. I do see the obvious logic that if I did drive the business with more ambition, we could help more people.” This leader cares much more about doing the thing than about leading the thing. Leading an organization is his best way to get the thing done.
  1. Seek alternate sources of inspiration. I was with another gifted and reluctant leader recently — also an entrepreneur — who was reflecting on a leadership event featuring a number of brilliant and accomplished speakers. He said, “I’m not inspired by those other impressive leaders, because I look at them and I think, ‘Well, of course, you’re going to be up front, and of course your thing is going to work, because look at what a strong and charismatic leader you are.’ But what does inspire me is to see people like (another person on the program) and think, ‘They’re not any more special than I am, and God has used them in amazing ways, so maybe He could do that for me.’ ”

He’s longing to see what it looks like in real life when God’s vocation is enough. I think there are a lot of reluctant leaders out there like him, who might need help seeing that God is telling them it’s their turn to lead.


STEVE GRAVES

Steve is an organizational strategist, social innovator, pragmatic theologian, executive coach, and mentor. Over the past 25 years Steve has helped hundreds of organizations launch and scale, while authoring over 15 books aimed at showing business people how to flourish in their life and work.