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Learning to Lead

An unbelievably large amount of material has been produced in the last few years on the topic of becoming a better leader. Some people are tired of the subject and others think they are excluded from the conversation because they don’t perceive themselves to be in a leadership position. Neither of these approaches are good because both of them will prevent us from accomplishing what really needs to get done in life. We cannot afford to get tired of studying leadership principles because they are ever-evolving. And yes, you are a leader! That simply means that someone is looking up to you, following you, watching you as an example.

So, how do we learn leadership?

We learn by reading. Good leaders are good readers. I think that if you are not perpetually working your way through some type of leadership material, you probably aren’t very serious about improving as a leader. Don’t know where to start? Try your public library. Walmart, amazon.com, and a thousand websites and blogs will provide a lifetime worth of decent material. Just start reading.

Leadership conferences are all the rage these days. I receive invitations to dozens of leadership conferences every month. Many of these meetings are great and offer world-class training. Others aren’t, in my opinion, worth the price of admission. And I think the trap for some has become being conference-active and leadership-weak. Eventually we have to stop running around the country listening to Chan and Hybels and Maxwell, and we have to get to work. If you’ve been privileged to attend conferences, stay home for a while and use what you’ve learned.

We learn by experience. In every one of my leadership appointments, I wasn’t adequately prepared for the challenges that were ahead of me – I had to learn on the fly. There is nothing like trial and error to teach us what to do and what not to do. This can be a painful experience for both the leader and the followers, but it is a necessary element in individual and corporate growth. Don’t be afraid to jump into the deep end of the pool – just be sure you are in a culture that provides life preservers (systems and safety nets for a growing leader).

We learn by watching a leader in action. Yesterday I was able to be in a lengthy meeting with a leader that I admire. We were wrestling with some tough issues, decisions that had to be made that required strength and courage and wisdom. A few times throughout the day, I watched his facial expressions and his body language. I listened to the way he addressed his fellow leaders around the table. And I took note. We all observed how he worked his way through a difficult agenda. I think I left the meeting as a better leader.

We learn by watching a leader lead. I learn when I follow. Come to think of it, that is how the greatest leader of all time did His best leadership training. Jesus asked His disciples to follow Him. As they spent 3 plus years shadowing Jesus, the disciples learned how to lead, how to respond to critics, how to care for the hurting, how to make decisions. They learned how to live and how to die.

No matter what you are reading, regardless of the latest conference you’ve attended, no matter in what capacity you find yourself leading, my question is this: from whom are you learning leadership? Who are you following, observing close enough to learn from? Watch them. If they are a good leader, get closer and emulate them. Lean in. If they are a bad leader, learn what not to do and keep on looking for a good leader to follow.

That’s how we learn to lead.


Rick Whitter serves as the State Administrative Bishop for the Church of God in Minnesota. He is also the Director of International Orphan Support (iorphan.cc).