When I signed up for The World Race, an eleven-country eleven-month mission trip around the world, I never imagined my first crisis of faith would have to do with leadership.
I expected to see some heavy things around the globe. I expected to be challenged. But it was astonishing the way it happened so quickly and how many were in the struggle with me.
We weren’t even out of the country yet. Sixty of us from all over the U.S. had gathered in Georgia for a week long training camp. None of us knew one another and there was an instant fear of belonging. Would I be accepted? Would I be liked? Would I fit in?
During the first few days we spent time in worship sessions, teaching sessions, and team-building exercises. A cloud of performance was rolling in, covering the whole experience. Everyone was trying to put their best foot forward. It was like speed dating.
Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the unspoken competition for leadership positions. Seven from our group of sixty would be chosen. With varying amounts of honesty and self-awareness, we all wanted to be picked. We wanted to win. We wanted to be the best.
The title of ‘leader’ is incredibly validating. It lets you know that others see value. You are doing something right. I had been a leader all my life and the title had become a sort of lifeblood, an energy that got me through. After all, I had been valued enough to be chosen in the past. If I wasn’t chosen now, had I lost my value?
I started to smell all of this on me during my time in Georgia. And it stank. I asked our trainers to please NOT chose me for leadership. Of course, in some ways, this is a reverse psychology thing. I know they want people who aren’t dying to get it. But also, I didn’t want it. I really, really didn’t want to play this game for the next year. I wanted a new game. Something that felt more free, more true.
On the day that leaders were announced, I found myself longing to be chosen. In spite of myself, I hoped they would say, “he is just sooo great, we couldn’t not pick him!”
Rumors had been flying around about who would be The Chosen Ones; which one of us was the best.
After the seven were announced, a new battle enraged. The seven, no doubt, were fed a spoonful of false-validation. The rest were, to some degree, upset. What’s wrong with me?
This wasn’t an isolated incident. Throughout my entire experience, the desire for leadership positions was a thorn in our side. People wanted it, performed to get it, resented not being chosen, blamed and sabotaged to prove they could do it all better.
It was messy and I was not immune to it. I played my part.
Leadership is not a status symbol. It is not a validation of better-ness. It is a call to serve. Becoming a great leader is not about the title given. It is about the life displayed.
On the other side of the coin, I also experienced leaders who cared for others, who forgot about the title and just lived out of their God given identities.
Justin was a musician who was constantly tapped on the shoulder to lead us in worship. He struggled with performing and worried he was losing his love for music. One day I heard him on the roof of the orphanage we were at worshipping by himself. His desire to get away and connect without others around influenced me to write a few things ‘just for myself’, more careful to not make everything I write be about the reception of readers.
Jolene was a take-charge kind of person. She loved Excel sheets and whiteboards. Watching her lead her team, she was systematic, but also relaxed. She could laugh and be personable as well as be organized. The organization was how she loved people and it influenced how I view administrative tasks.
Chelsey was never in a leadership position. But she influenced and ‘led’ me more than almost anyone on the field. She was constantly looking for ‘whimsy and grace’ and it influenced me toward the power of living with intention and taught me about looking for the unique beauty of the world.
These are a few examples. These people were not influencers because someone else told me I was supposed to be influenced by them. They did not impact my life because I was commanded to respect their authority. I saw it; vulnerable and genuine, I observed the way they walked in step with The Lord and I wanted it for myself.
This is the true essence of leadership. Referent power. Influence by simply be-ing.