Not all individuals in leadership positions are leaders. A title might give you authority and it might place people under your direction, but it doesn’t mean anyone is following you. For that to be true, you have to be a person worth following, and that’s something a title can’t give you. Tom Hanks’ character in Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller, is a leader I’d follow. Among other things, he earns and gives respect in an authentic way as this scene profoundly illustrates.
We see another useful and powerful picture of great leadership in 1 Corinthians 3:4-9. In response to the people’s argument about who their leader was, Paul, the first century apostle and super-leader writes the following:
“For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building” (NASB).
Hidden behind the imagery and analogy are four traits of great leadership. Here they are:
1. Great leaders know that function is more important than titles.
When the pressure is on I want the person who can deliver…regardless of their official title. I want the guy who cares about the job because he wants to do the job right. This is the type of leader Mark Sanborn was talking about in his book You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader when he wrote, “Look for people who are as interested in making a difference as they are in making money.”
In similar fashion, David Brooks says great leaders are internally driven. Their outlook was grounded before ambition took hold of them.
Sometimes we get the titles right and sometimes we miss it. But there is no mistaking someone’s contribution, and everyone can be a contributor because contributing is more about fulfilling a function than playing a role with a title.
2. Great leaders have a healthy sense of selflessness.
“Are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants.”
Keep in mind who Paul was at this time. He was easily one of the two or three most globally recognizable followers of Jesus. But you don’t get that from this reading. Great leaders have a healthy sense of selflessness. It’s what Jim Collins describes as a Level 5 Leader.
Be warned, though: I have never met a leader with a messiah complex who started out that way. Typically we start slow and take an inch and keep claiming real estate. Our peers or subordinates stop challenging us because it just isn’t worth the grief, drama, or risk. It is just easier to let the messiah complex leader live in his own world. And then he only gets worse.
3. Great leaders see their leadership as one piece of a bigger process.
Paul says, “I planted, someone else watered.” It’s like saying, “I framed and someone else came in with the finishers.”
We are all a part of the story. Every story has a backstory and a forward story just like every product is part of a larger supply chain and demand chain. I do my part and you do your part and it all comes together at the end. But often we begin to think we are the full or only story. We see our leadership as a one-man brand model of life, work, and ministry that all story flows from and around.
I have been involved in hundreds of successions in my executive coaching business, and every structure has its unique challenges. But the one-man brand, the messiah complex leader always presents the greatest challenges. Period. I am always amused at leaders who think that there is no life or growth after their tenure. Either they’re wrong or something’s wrong with the company they lead.
On July 2, 1962, Sam Walton opened the first Wal-Mart store in Rogers, Ark. In 1988 Mr. Sam become sick and passed the keys to the $16 billon company to David Glass, who served twelve years then handed it over to Lee Scott. Scott cleaned out his desk in 2009 and helped transition Mike Duke into that small efficient office. And then recently Mike handed over the CEO role—a role leading 2.2 million associates worldwide and serving more than 200 million customers each week at more than 11,000 stores in 27 countries generating almost $500 billion in sales—to Doug McMillon.
Who would have ever imagined the results of each “next guy in line”? Some expanded the borders and some firmed up the infrastructure. Some did both. But they all realized they were part of something bigger than themselves.
4. Great leaders recognize that there is a God component and a people component to all success.
“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6).
On a recent trip to the Tuscan region in Italy I was reminded that the entire grape harvest depends on sun and rain—two qualities outside the role and responsibility of any human.
Sure, we do the clearing of the land. We do the planting. We do the watering. We might even do the harvesting. But it is God that is causing the growth. Regardless of title, pedigree, wealth, intelligence, and experience, we have clear limits. Only a fool thinks they are controlling the weather.
Rick Warren said it this way: “A pretentious and showy life is an empty life; a plain and simple life is a full life.” Simply do what is in front of you and trust the results to God.
Maybe you notice a theme here. In each of these four traits, the focus is not on the leader but rather is pointed outward—at the task at hand, at the co-laborers, at the larger story, at God Himself. It was true for Paul, and it was true for Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan.
Ironically, we always want to talk about the leader, but the great leaders always want to talk about something else.
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.