I'm Not a 'Leader'... or Am I?

April 4th, 2013

I have ideas. Good ones. As a matter of fact, part of what makes me good at what I do is that I think I can do most things better than other people can. I have just enough humility to know I am not perfect and just enough pride to believe I can do most things better than you. I know this is shocking, and you might not know me, so let me assure you I am being a bit sarcastic while exhibiting some self-disclosure at the risk of sounding like a self-righteous idiot.

All leaders have a bit of healthy confidence. Sometimes mine gets out of whack. This is why I have removed myself from the leader pool in the past or at least doubted my ability. After all, aren’t leaders always supposed to be perfectly humble?

I’ve always been taught to believe that Christian leaders don’t have that degree of confidence (pride) in themselves. They are big fans of creative collaboration and believe all God’s children have a place in the choir—even (maybe especially) the ones who sing incredibly flat. But I don’t necessarily believe that. This is one of the reasons I’ve never really fancied myself a leader.

This leads me to another observation about myself. Leaders use words like “fancied” in sentences. But I don’t. Except for that time in the last paragraph where I thought I’d try it on for size. I didn’t like it. I like to think I’m smart, but really, I think I’m pretty average (maybe a little above) on the smart scale. I’ve always been taught to believe leaders speak and write well, but I have never considered myself a natural scholar or orator. The times I sound good come with a ton of practice and hard work.

I have tattoos, a crazy beard, and earrings, and I like them all. Sometimes I wax and curl my mustache because it’s fun. I even pretend my wife enjoys it too. I tried to wear Dockers slacks for a while, but I felt like I was being punished—like that time I had to write “I will not say that word” 1,000 times after I cussed out my cousin’s dog in front of my mother. I tried the slacks (or trousers, as my grandpa called them) because I thought it was expected of a leader.

This is probably a really good time to tell you I think sarcasm is one of my spiritual gifts. Sarcasm is a powerful tool for communication, and it sometimes gets me in trouble (often). The nature of sarcasm is that it speaks for itself—you don’t always have to point it out. Until you put it in print form and serve it up to people who don’t know you. Sarcasm comes from a word that literally means “the tearing of the flesh.” When it goes bad, it goes horribly wrong. I pray that doesn’t happen here. You’ll get sarcasm in small doses throughout this book. This penchant for sarcasm has been a point of contention for me in my leadership, and sometimes it has been sin on my part. This is another reason I have second-guessed my calling at times.

I have a library full of leadership books. These books have much in common. They all have lists of things I am supposed to aspire to be as a leader. Some of the advice has shaped me. Some has enlightened me. Much has discouraged me.

I have been to leadership conferences. I have listened to countless leadership CDs (I started with cassettes), podcasts, and seminars. I’ve gleaned much from them. And yet, I have often come away thinking, “Who am I kidding?”

I once thought a leader spoke a certain way, dressed for the part, always paid for lunch, enjoyed patent leather, and couldn’t wait to get on the golf course.

This year, I finally decided I don’t like golf. Sure, I like driving the cart, I like a beer after the game, I enjoy the conversation, and I occasionally hit something straight and feel the thrill. But I don’t want to get any better. I don’t dream about it. And it’s kind of boring. Now, what kind of a pastor or leader does not like golf?

I’m not even joking about my leader perceptions. For years, I carried this burden of not measuring up. Then, one day some things turned around for me. One of the leaders I look up to (who tucks in his shirt) told me he wished he could lead like me.

Like me? I asked him what he saw in me that he wanted to aspire to. He told me he appreciated that I could speak my mind without being a jerk (most of the time), that people wanted to hear what I had to say, that people genuinely wanted to be on my team, that I exuded an incredible freedom and daring optimism, and that I got stuff done.

I think he just wanted me to buy dinner.

I do know this: I have ideas, creativity, opinions, and tastes that have been forged through opportunities and stepping in where things have been left undone. Most of the leadership positions I have held have been given to me in the wake of a disaster, a church split, or a major upset of some other variety. I’ve always been the next guy. In many cases, I’ve been forced to clean up the mess and forge a new way while mending wounds.

As such, I have a style and a leadership personality that has emerged through trying stuff on for size. I think what my friend really saw in me (because I am most definitely not all those things, even in my own mind) was freedom. Freedom to try. Freedom to fail. Freedom to do my best without a blueprint. Freedom to ask, “Who said we can’t do that?”

I blow it all the time. People get mad at me often. But people do like to watch a fire burn. Freedom in a leader is a fire people want to be around.

I realize now I am a leader. Just not that kind. Or that kind. Or your kind. Or her kind. My kind. The kind God made (and is making) me to be and has shaped (and is shaping) me to be by his influence, life situations, people, experience, choices, education, and a myriad of other influences.

I have also realized something I wish every person in my position could realize, because it has been a gift: I may not fit the mold, I may not engage in the same water cooler conversations, and I may not frequent the same establishments as other leaders, but I have been entrusted with a group of more than 1,000 people in this particular franchise of the kingdom in Jackson, Michigan. That is important. That is unique. That is who I lead. Not your church. Not his or hers. This one.

They are my people. This city is my home. I can’t separate who I am from where I live. All leadership rules don’t universally apply. All places are not my place, and all people are not my people. I’m not only a leader; I am this leader. Their leader. Now.

This article is an excerpt from Quirky Leadership by John Voelz, Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press

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