Learning to Lead

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Is leadership an innate ability bequeathed to a chosen few? Or, is the art of leadership something that a person can grow into and hone over time? My answer to both questions is, “Yes!” The observation that some people are born with a natural gravitas and innate leadership propensity seems obvious. The Apostle Paul implores those with this gift to to “lead with all diligence.” It seems equally clear that others have never aspired to leadership; and yet these individuals lead with excellence from a combination of learned skills and their own being.

We could quibble about these observations. However, more and more these days I am convinced that when it comes to the making of a leader, one thing is universal: nearly every effective leader can point to key influencers who’s presence in their lives was catalytic in their becoming a leader of impact.  Moreover, if you tease apart the formative leadership relationships you will discover that these leadership mentors appear in formative seasons, and in some predicable forms. Let me point out a few of the mentors I often hear about.

Many learning their way into leadership will speak of Occasional Mentors. These mentors are the leaders many of us seek out for a beverage of choice, a meeting when possible, or a phone call when all else fails. We want to bounce ideas off of them; gain their perspective and insight; or, have them weigh in on an idea we have been mulling around. We may not interact with them regularly, but when the “occasion” presents itself, we can’t pass by the chance to meet these leaders.

Check a growing leaders’ book shelf and you will discover another common mentor of impact in a leader’s life: the Content Mentor.  Content Mentors shape how we think about the church, how we construct our leadership paradigms, and how we build our leadership worldview and see ourselves. We may not ever meet these mentors in person, but we still feel a strong kinship with them through their articles, podcasts, books, etc. Content Mentors can be immensely helpful, provided they don’t tunnel our vision.

Engage reflectively with sharp leaders and you will discern the presence of yet another mentor: the Skill(s) Mentor. Specialists in some facet of leadership, Skill(s) Mentors address known gaps in our leadership abilities. We learn from them about strategic planning, preaching methods, develop teams, conflict management, - and a whole lot more. Our relationship with these leaders might not be formalized, but we look to them as frequently as we discern shortcomings in our leadership skillset.

The Character Mentor is the final mentor that all leaders of substance has in common. These are the leaders with whom we share our lives, bear our souls and yield our persons to. Why?  Because we know that their shaping influence is both helpful and necessary. These Character Mentors elicit from us the tears, laughter repentance and jot that are key to leadership formation in us. Character Mentors prod us to summon more courage than we might otherwise conjure on our own, and they chide us when no one else would dare. Every growing leader has a mentor of this calibre in their lives. And if you are leading and don’t have this mentor in your life, you need to find one. Now.

So, how would  one find a Character Mentor? Start by praying that God will show you people who could play this role. Then, listen well for God’s leading. Sometimes I have had 2-3 names emerge. When that happens, I interview each potential mentor.  I will call a potential mentor and asked them out to lunch or coffee, and  I always offer to pay. When we meet I tell them I am looking for a mentor, and would like to ask them about the possibility of them playing that role. I also ask them lots of questions  about who they have mentored, about what sort of process they use in mentoring, etc. Then, I thank them, pay the bill - and pray some more. More often than not, by the time I am done with this process I have a sense that God is pointing me towards someone in particular. And, I am often surprised who it is.

Most of us will not thrive in ministry without help. We might have flairs of brilliance. However, sustained, long term impact in ministry seems to me to occur most regularly in the lives of people who have deliberately apprenticed themselves to others throughout their ministry career.

Looking to thrive in leadership? Ask yourself: who am I apprenticed to that can help me flourish in the leadership God has called me to give?

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