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Great Leaders Are Different

November 7, 2020
Lead Self
Eric Cone

I believe that leadership is a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege granted to those who influence others with integrity of heart and skillfulness. There is a great difference between people who just get stuff done (a potential yet basic definition of a leader or manager) and people who establish a meaningful impact on the world around them. We see multiple examples of organizations that were led by people who “just got the job done” and experienced immense success before their compromising philosophies caught up with them (e.g. Enron, EpiPen, Penn State Football). However, as I believe most of us would argue, these organizations were led by corrupt leaders who possess a self-serving worldview. 

Leadership skills are not enough

Peter Northouse described people’s potential for leadership with the following statement, “many people have the potential for leadership. If people are capable of learning from their experience, they can acquire leadership.” While this may be a good summation of general leadership, I believe great leaders are different. I think all leaders have to possess certain skills in order to experience success or impact others. However, leadership skills are not enough. History is littered with examples of leaders who possess great skills but lacked the most critical differentiator between leaders: those who are serving versus those who are self-serving. I believe the difference is character. 

Leadership character paired with leadership skills — that is what differentiates great leaders from everyone else. It’s what produces servant leaders.

“When push comes to shove, under pressure, if it’s not who you are, it’s hard for you to do even what you think is right because your ego is going to get in the way – your false pride and your self-doubt. But if it’s who you are, then that’s who you’re going to be on a day-to-day basis” (Larry Spears). This statement embodies why I believe servant leadership is the highest form of leadership. It requires a profound authenticity and character that is not required in other forms of leadership. Leadership is about others, not me. The moment I make leadership about myself, I become a self-serving leader. When leadership is about others, I am able to “create healthy organizations that nurture individual growth, strengthen organizational performance, and, in the end, produce a positive impact on society” (Peter Northouse).

How Mission Can Fuel Effective Leadership

This belief that servant leadership is the highest form of leadership has caused me to reflect quite extensively on my own leadership journey to this point. No leader fully arrives at being a complete servant leader. I am constantly growing in my capacity to lead with more selflessness as I discover how best to serve the world around me. This has led me to craft a personal leadership mission statement that inspires me and convicts me to pursue greater service to others as I continue on my journey of becoming a servant leader. My leadership mission is to: 

“Love with steadfastness, lead with strength and serve with gladness, to the glory of God and the good of others.”

Love with steadfastness

This leadership mission statement contains some elements of my core beliefs about life and leadership. I believe that without love, servant leadership is unattainable. Love, rooted in character, is what sets great leaders apart. Leaders like Nelson Mandela profoundly loved with steadfastness both the people who were oppressing and those being oppressed. He loved people for the simple fact that they are people. I believe that humans have eternal significance and are therefore worthy of deep and profound love. This belief is what drives me to desire to “love with steadfastness”.

Lead with strength

Another core belief is that great leadership requires strength. Leadership is hard. It is especially hard when leading in hardship or resistance. That is exactly what Martin Luther King Jr. encountered in his leadership. He also held the belief that all people possessed eternal significance and were endowed by God with dignity and inalienable rights. MLK’s leadership required profound strength and sacrifice. His leadership would cost him because servant leadership naturally has a cost. It requires us to deny ourselves at times in order to serve the needs of others. I believe that whether I am leading within my home or leading at the highest level of a global institution, true servant leadership requires profound strength to endure when the going gets tough… and it will get tough if I am leading toward meaningful outcomes.

Serve with gladness

I also believe that service is the highest form of leadership. In fact, I believe that service should precede leadership for it to be authentic and lasting. Having the heart of a servant is what makes the leaders I previously mentioned so powerful and inspirational. This desire to serve first is also why I think serving with gladness is different than just serving. There is a profound difference between a leader who serves and a servant who leads. Authentic servant leadership starts with service and leverages leadership as a means to greater service. Service validates leadership, not the other way around. When serving is just a behavior and not a state of being, then the attitude will reveal the lack of authenticity. When being a servant is who we are and we pursue it with joy, then gladness is the indication that our service is deeply rooted in who we are, not just what we do. This is why I believe that leadership character has to be present for leadership skills to produce meaningful results.

To the glory of God and the good of others

Finally, I believe that servant leadership is profoundly spiritual. I try to do everything to the glory of God and the good of those I am serving. The reason I believe that all people are eternally significant is because the Scripture tells us that people are created in the image of God, which makes us profoundly spiritual and eternally significant. When I am serving people, I am serving God, and when I do things for God’s glory it produces good for those I serve. For me, there is a direct correlation and causation between serving God and people. They both work together in a beautiful and meaningful way.

A servant leader in training

These four core beliefs about leadership have been the catalyst for my leadership maturation over the past few years. When I look at my leadership mission statement, I am both encouraged and convicted. I realize that I live in the tension of “already, but not yet” in my embodiment of these characteristics. I do not consider myself a great leader, but I consider myself a servant leader in training. Leadership is a journey, and I will be on that journey until the day I die. I will never fully arrive. Every season beckons me to grow more into that leader and into the man that looks like a new creation. My prayer is that the Lord would grant me the grace and wisdom to “Love with steadfastness, lead with strength and serve with gladness, to the glory of God and the good of others”.

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