Insights for reluctant leaders

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Stepping forward to lead, whether a team, project or a group of people, is not something most of us are eager to do. The pressure of people no longer looking at you but to you; the expectation that you are always supposed to know what to do next; the assumption that you have it all together and know what you’re talking about. Worst of all, the target placed on your back when someone is needed to cop the blame. All of these reasons and more very often mean we keep our hands pressed deep in our pockets when volunteers are called for.

Leadership, which is about motivating and inspiring people in the direction of expressed goals, dreams and aspirations, brings with it the responsibility of living on multiple and varying levels, because life is far from one-dimensional. I have been fortunate to meet and train all types of leaders from all over the world: government workers, barbershop owners, stock brokers and market-stall holders. This article explores some commonalities in their leadership and their ability to not only inspire people to follow, but also move them forward. This is not an exhaustive list nor is it the final word on leadership; these are merely my insights drawn from 20 years of experience, observation, success and failure.

1. Team leadership begins with honest self-leadership.

Helping others find truth in themselves begins with understanding how to find that same truth in ourselves as leaders. Leadership does not mean knowing it all; it actually means knowing you will never totally know it all. Focus on surrounding oneself with knowledgeable, competent and committed people who empower you to know more. Not knowing only becomes a liability and problem in leadership when we refuse to admit our shortfall and subsequently refuse to plug the gap in our understanding. All the successful leaders I have observed never feared not knowing. They were willing to learn from the people they led, which, in turn, inspired confidence in their leadership.

There is a level of vulnerability that comes with being honest about your limitations, recognising the gaps in your understanding and embracing those feelings of being overwhelmed. However, inside that vulnerability and fear is a deepened level of resilience that is being built and waiting to be discovered and accessed, if we are willing to grow via the process of self-honesty. To lead others well, begin with self-leadership.

2. Establish an early understanding

Knowing early who and what you are responsible for, and how long and why you are responsible for it, creates a focused clarity right at the outset. This will ensure direction and continuity as the journey proceeds. It also centres your overall purpose and renews the energy that is lost when obstacles arise. All the leaders I have met who led well and lived well established an early sense of what they were called and committed to do. Fifteen years ago, I led a church startup in South London called Kennington Community Fellowship. The first thing we established was our “why” for being in that local community. We defined our reason this way: “We exist as a church to serve the community we find ourselves in.” I was in London just recently and visited KCF. I heard one of the leaders training and encouraging a whole new generation of members and leaders, 15 years on, with these words: “I want you to know that we exist as a local church for the purpose of serving this community we find ourselves in.” Establish your understanding early and remain consistent with that mission.

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3. Be patient

People need time to grow, visions need time to develop, change needs time to happen and organisational culture needs time to emerge. Being patient is of utmost importance and maintaining a consistent level of enthusiasm while waiting is both a gift and a necessity. Encouraging continued participation and creating space for personal growth and self-development makes the passing of time meaningful. So the lesson here is simply this: develop the capacity for patience with the time it takes to achieve your goals, and your people their goals. Being patient does not mean becoming complacent and nonchalant. Leaders who lead well allow time—the time it needs. Be patient.

4. People matter, so treat them well

I have met leaders who were not necessarily gregarious, but who understood the value and importance of people and focused on making sure that their team was empowered and affirmed. Tasks, goals, KPIs, deadlines all have their defined importance, but they are secondary to the importance of the people you lead and who follow you.

Know the people you lead and treat them with respect and dignity. When the people you lead know that they are valued and cared for, they will go further, dig deeper and sacrifice more than you would ever have expected from them. Treat people well.

5. Successful leaders are always asking, ‘who’s next?’

We live and lead successfully when we pour the best of ourselves into others and plan with those who will succeed us in mind. Who will take on the mantle of leadership when my time has ended?

The “who” is connected to mentoring and legacy. The “who” is about continuity and, again, is people-focused.

Impactful leadership always thinks beyond its time of influence; it pays attention to how decisions shape the future. Impactful leaders intentionally pour the best ideas, energy and enthusiasm into the immediate team while keeping a close eye on those coming behind them, ensuring that both function at a high level. Value the place where you lead, by preparing it for those who come behind you.

In Proverbs 27:23,24, the wise man’s advice to his son is, “Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure for ever, and a crown is not secure for all generations.” He informs his son that the attention paid to the care of his flocks now will compensate, support and provide for his household later.

Giving attention to the call and responsibilities of leadership begins with paying attention to who you are and how you are. So, take your hands out of your pockets, stick that hand up in the volunteer air and step up to the challenge. We never arrive at perfection in leadership anyway, so relax and take that pressure off yourself. We just land at the next lesson, having learned and grown because of the last lesson. So lead well, live well and be well.


Eddie Hypolite is a professional development consultant, pastor and author based in Newcastle, NSW.

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