When I was in my teens and twenties, I wanted to be a leader. Whatever God had in store for me, I knew leadership was a part of it. And while I’ve not led any countries or Fortune 500 companies, my expectation to spend the bulk of my professional life in leadership has come true.
In the course of my professional career, I’ve been a project coordinator, non-profit middle manager, private school teacher, the administrator of a small private school, and the pastor of two churches. And I can say this: leadership isn’t always fun.
With this article, I want to share five principles I’ve learned that are crucial to understanding what leadership is really all about. The sooner you learn these, the more effective you will be as a leader.
1. Leadership is based on responsibility.
Leadership is not about giving orders or being in the limelight. It’s about responsibility.
Harry Truman perhaps put it best, when he said, “The buck stops here.”
Earlier in my career, I had the privilege of being a part of organizations in which I exercised some influence, safely under an umbrella of managers and leaders above me. That changes the higher up you go, and the measure of a true leader is one who embraces responsibility and accountability.
You’re not a true leader, unless and until you fully and completely engage the people you’re working with and take full ownership of the responsibilities you’ve been given.
2. Leaders get criticized.
Most of my life, I recoiled from, withdrew from, and tried to avoid confrontation and criticism. Unfortunately (for my sensitivity), leadership is all about agitation and confrontation. It involves sticking your neck out.
The reason is because leadership involves change. It involves moving people from one place to another and challenging people to do X or Y, when they may have other plans.
Quite often, as a leader, you’ll get criticized — sometimes gently and sometimes not so gently.
Sometimes, the criticism is based on a misunderstanding. Being misjudged and criticized unfairly is the hardest type of criticism.
Of course, sometimes, the criticism has merit. And a good leader learns from it and is humble enough to admit when he or she is wrong.
3. Leaders disappoint others.
My nature is that I want to encourage everyone and make everyone around me feel good. It’s why I love to crack jokes and have developed a sense of humor. But there are times when the laughter needs to stop and tough decisions need to be made, and people get hurt or disappointed.
When it comes to people getting hurt or disappointed in any organization, the leader is right at the center of it. There’s nowhere to hide.
A good leader has to stand up straight, make the tough decisions, and accept that he or she will at times be misunderstood, improperly judged, and disliked.
What’s more, there are times when the decisions you make — even those well thought out and made for good reasons — will hurt and upset people you care about and respect.
The price of leadership is that you must often risk straining, even losing, relationships that are dear to you.
4. Leaders must first be followers.
No leader can become a leader, unless he or she is first a follower. And not only that, but no leader can remain a leader, unless he or she remains a follower.
Leaders must learn to be followers before they can become effective leaders. This is why there’s something to be said for working your way up, and learning from other leaders as you progress in your career.
When you reach the top of your organization or department, you still must be willing to submit to some accountability. Checks and balances are a good thing. No one is perfect, and everyone can benefit from wise counsel.
5. It’s easier to give an opinion, than to make a decision.
Giving an opinion is easy. Making a decision is hard.
When I was lower in the leadership food chain, I had lots of opinions and ideas. And I would often share them. And, at times, I would be disappointed when those ideas weren’t accepted.
Today, I recognize that, quite often, leaders must say ‘no’ to lots of ideas and suggestions — sometimes even good ideas.
Leaders have to stay focused and they must keep the people they are leading focused. The more you put on your plate or on your organization’s plate, the more clouded and compromised things get.
Opinions are the cheapest commodity on earth. Quite often, ideas are the same. It’s easy to come up with lots of opinions and ideas. Executing those ideas is a different matter altogether.
Leaders can’t simply act on every idea or opinion that comes their way. They must weigh their options in light of their goals and objectives — as well as the limited resources available to them.
Leadership requires wisdom. And wisdom is not a cheap commodity. It is, in fact, more precious than gold and all the rare gems in the earth. Without wisdom, and the courage to make wise decisions, you won’t get very far as a leader.
Master the above five principles and you will have laid the necessary foundation upon which you can build a life of successful leadership.