How Do Ordinary People Become Growing Leaders?


photo credit: Jeremy Wilburn via photopin cc

Four paths that produce growing leaders

Not long ago, a movie hit the box offices around the U.S. It was called, “Defiance.” The movie told the history of hundreds of Jewish refugees who avoided the capture of the Nazi’s during World War II, in Belarus. It’s a poignant true story of leadership during a time of chaos. Daniel Craig plays the role of Tuvia Bielski, and Live Schreiber plays the role of his brother, Zus. These men struggle with how best to navigate the future of this growing band of resistants. There were no titles, or badges naming who should be in charge—and the brothers’ convictions were sharply different. The whole story got me thinking—how do leaders emerge? How do we spot them? On what path do they step forward for all to see? How do ordinary people become growing leaders that others will follow?

Both you and your students are on a leadership journey. Let me suggest four paths that individuals take on their way to becoming a leader. Maybe you can spot these in your organization or campus.

1. Some are gifted to lead. (They are enabled by their ability.)

These are the easiest kind of emerging leaders to identify. They are people who are simply gifted to lead. Either because of their personality or because they have the ability to organize or plan a strategy, these people step up and find it natural to lead, regardless of the circumstance. Whatever team they are on, whatever group they are in—they seem to be the person that others look to for answers. They usually have a strong personality. They often are gifted at articulating key goals. They are almost always clear on what must happen to reach those goals.

I have worked alongside John C. Maxwell since 1983. John is this kind of leader. If you assembled a group of people in a room—and you placed him in that room with them, he would inevitably take charge. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. He is just gifted to lead. He does it naturally. He has the ability to quickly see what needs to happen to reach a target or make things run more efficiently, and he has the strength to attract people to his plan. He is magnetic. I have seen John organize travelers at an airport, when the flight was delayed and come up with a plan to get to their destination. I have watched him turn a chaotic situation at a restaurant into one of laughter and cooperation; he turns groups into teams. He steps up to lead because of his gift.

2. Some are situated to lead. (They are enabled by an opportunity.)

The gifted leader makes up, perhaps 10% of the population. If leading is reserved for gifted individuals—we will certainly experience more problems than solutions. There just aren’t enough gifted leaders to go around. Fortunately, this isn’t the case. I believe there are two kinds of leaders—and everyone fits into one of these two categories: habitual leaders and situational leaders. Habitual leaders are the ones we just discussed above. They lead out of habit. Situational leaders are the ones who don’t believe they’re a leader—but, put them in the right situation, and they lead. Find a situation that matches their strengths, their passion and abilities, and in that situation, they will know what to do. And they will influence others.

My daughter Bethany is a situational leader. She would be the first to admit she isn’t the world’s greatest leader. Her personality is very phlegmatic. She’s laid back, casual and simply enjoys relationships. However, as a Resident Advisor at her university—she found herself in a situation that matches her identity. She is natural at leading her floor of women. She has intuition about people, she is comfortable in meetings, she’s confident, she’s socially aware and she experiences her deepest influence in that situation. It’s her sweet spot.

3. Some are positioned to lead. (They are enabled by some authority.)

There is a third path to leadership. This is where an organization has a role that needs to be filled and positions a person in that role, just to see what happens. Sometimes, they’re merely looking for a warm body to meet a need, or a person to temporarily “plug a hole” in the boat. When the potential leader steps into the position—it brings the best out in them. A sense of initiative and responsibility surface and they rise to the occasion. Perhaps those virtues would have never been so visible had it not been for the new “title” and position. Although I do believe there are many people with leadership positions who are not fit to lead, and that a position does not automatically make a leader—still there are some that only lead well once they are given the authority to do so.

For years, I taught college students in San Diego. Richard was a student who entered our department as a quiet, assuming and shy young man. The last word you would use to describe him was the word: leader. However, as time went on, I noticed his high level of integrity and his follow through on every assignment. I felt he would make a great study group leader—and so I asked him to become one. He was reluctant. He didn’t see himself as a leader at all. In fact, he called himself a “follower.” I replied that following well was the first step on the leadership journey. Richard finally gave in a led a group. He was outstanding. The next year, he was leading three groups; by his final year in school, he was leading all the study group leaders. Even he was surprised. It was in him all the time—he just needed to be positioned correctly.

4. Some are summoned to lead. (They are enabled by a crisis.)

This fourth pathway is most intriguing. I believe many potential leaders step into their primary means of influence because they are “summoned” by the circumstances around them. In other words, many people view themselves as quite “ordinary.” It is only when a crisis occurs or a tragedy looms on the horizon, that we see what’s really inside those ordinary people. They aren’t seeking a title, nor are they seeking greatness or notoriety. When a problem emerges, however, they suddenly are clear on what must happen and they step up to the plate. They don’t even think of themselves as a leader when they do. The just know someone has to do something, and instead of looking around them…they look inside and do it.

In his early days, Harry Truman was summoned to lead. As a kid, he was a geek. He worked on a farm, although he wasn’t big or well built. He wore thick eye-glasses that resembled the bottom of a Coke bottle. While in college—his father became ill, so he returned home, and never completed his studies. It was while this nerdy young man served in the military during World War I that he saw who he was. His troop was marching through Europe when German artillery began dropping all around them. Nearly every soldier ran in retreat. Harry Truman’s horse fell over almost killing him. But he slipped out from underneath, stood up and yelled for the men to get back in formation. They had a mission to fulfill. Those men were stunned to hear this quiet, little “four-eyed” man calling them to finish what they’d started. They returned and did what Harry said. Later in his diary, Harry wrote: “I learned two things about myself that night. First, I had a little courage. And, two, I liked to lead others.” As president, he handled some of the toughest decisions every made by a leader.

Every person’s life is an ongoing story. And everyone’s life is a path to somewhere. May you be able to see your path and the paths of students around you clearly—and help them discover the leader they were meant to become.

growing-leaders-on-your-campusInterested in learning more about growing leaders?
Download a free preview of our manifesto: The Little Red Book for Growing Leaders on Your Campus.


How Do Ordinary People Become Growing Leaders?