Need a Leader? Look Behind You.

At the beginning of 2016 I launched a full-fledged writing agency called Cicada as I am working on being a leader—essentially creating opportunities to lead instead of waiting around for someone in front of me to tap me for those roles. I decided that if I’m going to be a leader I had better just turn around and tap myself.

But something interesting happened when I turned around to tap myself. I saw leaders behind me. Not people behind me in terms of experience or education but in terms of the leaders of now. I saw my team, my co-workers, my co-creators. In the writers I have gathered around my business I see leaders. They will lead differently than me. They will want different things, go after different dreams but are leaders just as much as am I. I caution people against saying today’s young people are tomorrow’s leaders. That’s all wrong. Today’s young people are today’s leaders. They’re already here and they’re watching for you to turn around.

So when you do decide to turn around, how will you discern the leader? Here are my top 3 signs of a leader in your midst:

  • Clear on their “why.” Pay attention to the people doing work you’re unwilling to do and find out why they’re doing it. During my undergrad at Bethel University my Honors Program organized profile interviews with faculty and staff to learn their faith and vocation stories—how they melded and intersected. One session surprised all of us because the profile interview was of the school’s custodian. Everyone knew him. He was very kind and worked hard and was always right there after every performance in the Great Hall or on the court after every big game—setting things right and preparing for the next event. We learned that he had an advanced degree and had been a professional in his career for several years until he saw a job opening for a custodian at Bethel. When he assessed his passions and what really mattered to him three things stood out: he wanted to serve the Kingdom, he wanted physical labor, he wanted to use his gifts of trustworthiness and organization to improve a community. Custodian on a Christian Liberal Arts campus it was!
  • A willingness to say hard things. Leaders ask challenging questions. I remember being in a Women of Faith group also during my undergrad at Bethel. I would describe myself then as gregarious and over-the-top outgoing (I was Freshman class president). In this Women of Faith group we were discussing the best way to handle a troubling situation on campus and I loudly ticked off a handful of what I thought were brilliant ideas about what to do. The shiest girl in our group who rarely contributed, not only quietly countered what I said but offered the most thoughtful solution. I was stunned to realize I had been in the presence of an unassuming powerhouse with a willingness to say hard things. Leader.
  • A commitment to respite. Leaders get away from the rat race, the go-go-go, the noise, the pressure. They say no. I’ll give you an example of what not to do. Over the course of a month this year I had been very ill with some kind of awful throat situation. I was not okay and yet…I kept slogging through work. The day before a scheduled meeting I had with I client I emailed him to ask if we were still on and his reply was, “I’m not feeling well, I’m taking a sick day, we’ll have to reschedule.” The irony is that I was also sick. I forgot people take sick days and actually do nothing but heal themselves with whatever amount of their preferred wellness cocktail of chicken soup or Vitamin C or clinic visits or bad TV it takes to heal and get well. What a concept. What a leader he was.

Notice I’m not saying the mark of a leader is “the person who works the latest” or “the one who shouts the loudest” or “the biggest risk taker.” Those are tired examples of leaders and I don’t even believe those traits are good indicators of the kind of leader I’m interested in following or discovering when I turn around. The leader I follow when I turned to the light was kneeling at his disciples feet, and he was saying hard things to people in high places, and he was challenging a slew of questions with new ways of thinking, and he was spending time by himself on a mountain, away from all the noise and heartache.

Look for your leaders behind you—they’re the ones living into their “why” and saying hard things and spending time apart.


This article originally appeared in the print magazine The Mennonite.

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