Wesley Furlong | April 21, 2014
I have never bothered or asked in what way I was useful to society as a whole; I contented myself with expressing what I recognized as good and true. That has certainly been useful in a wide circle; but that was not the aim, it was the necessary result.
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The difference between a talented leader and a truly inspiring one can be measured by how far we’re willing to follow them.
We’ll listen to talented leaders share their insights, but there’s something beyond talent that leads us to follow someone into uncharted territory.
What’s the difference between a leader we respect and one we’d actually follow?
Passion is contagious. Charisma certainly captivates us. Eloquence and physical qualities do too. But someone can have all of that plus a high IQ, endless resources, and well connected friends and we still won’t follow them very far. It’s also true that someone can lack all of these and we’d still follow them into battle. Why?
It’s the personal narrative behind their leadership that makes the difference. Inspiring leadership is undeniably biographical. “Why” they lead and “where” they’re going is firmly embedded in what has happened to them. We see the transformation in their lives and the vision that rises from their struggle and find ourselves resonating with their story and joining their journey from what is to what should be.
Every inspiring leader goes through a death of sorts. Usually, there’s a long process that leads up to it and the death itself might be triggered by circumstances outside of their control, but regardless of how or even why it happens, the leader disconnects from the present order of things and completely surrenders to an unseen reality. It’s the impact on their personal life that stands out to us. There’s no doubt about it: they’re fully in and compel us to do the same. Again, inspiring leadership is undeniably biographical.
I remember attending my first U2 concert and hearing Bono sing, “In the Name of Love.” There’s only one way to make that song work: full throttle! Any second-guessing or backing off, and it’s dead. But there wasn’t a trace of timidity in his voice. His unbridled emotion (Latin root of “emotion” movere means “to move”) grabbed hold of 70,000 people and swept them up into something larger than themselves.
Inspiring leaders do this. Their full abandonment grabs our hearts and yanks us out of our lethargy and doubts.
A young student once asked a rabbi, “What must I do to change the world?” Perceiving that he craved influence and wasn’t fully surrendered to the changes he sought for others, the rabbi instructed the young man to walk over to a small graveyard and criticize everyone buried there. He then instructed him to praise them. Finally, the rabbi said, “When you can be as dead to the praises and insults of people, you will begin to change the world.”
I can’t lead someone whose affirmation I require.
I can’t lead a group if I fear their rejection or misunderstanding.
I can’t take people somewhere significant if I’m as deeply entrenched in present reality as they are.
This is where the death must happen.
Are you fully abandoned to the vision?
Would people who know you say, “Without a doubt?!”
Has your heart been so enraptured that timidity and self-consciousness have given way to an unfeigned boldness?
Are you ok with the pain of insecurity and rejection that leadership requires?
If not, don’t start with leadership techniques. First, bury yourself! Deal with these heart issues before you engage the forms and techniques of leadership. If not, you’ll become a tour guide, not an inspiring leader.
Sam Chand once said that one’s leadership potential is in direct proportion to their threshold of pain. Here’s why: Growth requires change, change requires loss, and loss requires pain. We hit painful walls that force a self-inventory: Is it worth it? Can we endure? We either decide it’s not worth it or we press through and allow “perseverance to finish its work.” (James 1:3)
You don’t need a great voice, a large network of powerful friends, wealthy benefactors, or good looks to be an inspiring leader. But you do need charisma, passion, and vision. The great news is that when you emerge out of this death of self, these attributes will naturally emerge in ample supply.
Charles Wesley was once asked why he was so influential and said, “When you light yourself on fire, people love to watch you burn.”