September 27, 2021 • De Pree Journal
“Am I a leader?” Does that question ever cross your mind?
I used to think I was a leader, but now I’m less certain.
From my teenage years, pastors and teachers affirmed my leadership gifts and tried to find ways for me to develop them at church and at school. I was president of the church youth council, president of the math team, and vice president of a service club.
During college, I served on my campus ministry’s leadership team and spent my summers leading ministry programs. After graduating from seminary, I completed a two-year pastoral residency focused on developing me as a ministry leader.
The doubt set in when I was in my late 20s. A season of unemployment certainly contributed, but so did some careless words by a popular author who had written a book on leadership. He was the main speaker at a leadership development event I had been invited to attend. After he described what he thought it meant to be a leader, I asked a question about how I could develop one of the particular capacities he mentioned—a capacity I now know to be a particular challenge because of my personality type. He responded to my question by saying that maybe I wasn’t the type of leader he was describing.
His words crushed me. I slumped in my seat and remained silent for the rest of the session. My friends rushed over to me at the conclusion of the session to reassure me that I was a leader and that the speaker didn’t know what he was talking about, but I couldn’t shake his words.
My doubt grew when I became a mother. I was a doctoral student at the time and did some low-profile, contract-based work during nap times. For the most part, I was off-the-grid in terms of career and leadership. I stumbled onto our MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group’s leadership team when I volunteered to write our monthly newsletter. A few years later, I agreed to be our group’s coordinator and served in that role for two years. But a voice in my head would tell me that what I was doing wasn’t real leadership.
An evaluation survey at a national conference further amplified my doubts. In addition to asking my opinion on the sessions, the hopping cocktail hours, and the lavish meals, the conference planners wanted to know about my influence. How many people did I lead in my professional context? How many did I have the opportunity to influence with what I had learned at the conference?
I felt embarrassed to fill in the bubbles indicating the fewest amount. The survey didn’t give me the opportunity to explain that, while I didn’t lead throngs of people, I taught those who led the throngs. My work as a professor was to distribute the loaves and fishes. Their work was to feed the multitudes. That survey made it seem like leadership should be measured by the size of my platform and the scope of my influence. Maybe I wasn’t a leader after all.
Now, I own a consulting business for which I am the C-suite in its entirety. I would equate much of what I do in my work as leadership, but I still have trouble calling myself a leader.
It turns out, there’s no one agreed-upon definition of leader or leadership. Everyone seems to have their own understanding of who a leader is and what a leader should do. That makes trying to figure out whether or not I’m a leader rather difficult. Whose definition should I use? How many boxes do I need to check? Maybe you’re just as confused as I am.
Some definitions of leadership set the bar too low: “Leadership is influence.” If that’s the case, then the teens on TikTok who inspired students in our local high school to rip toilets out of the bathrooms would be considered leaders.
Other definitions set the bar too high. Recently I read a definition of spiritual leadership in a popular Christian book by the same title: Spiritual leadership is “moving people onto God’s agenda.” After I read the authors’ explanation for their definition, I wanted to give up. That version of leadership seemed impossible for most people, especially me.
I want a definition of leadership that feels “just right.” But I’m not sure that a perfect definition of leadership will erase my doubts and increase my confidence.
Instead, I think the way forward, for me, is to silence the voices of people who don’t know me and who have tried to size up my leadership by my height on a ladder, the size of my platform, or the scope of my influence. The way forward is to listen, instead, to the voices past and present who have affirmed me.
The way forward is to continue to walk in step with the Spirit, to be strong and courageous, to show up and use the gifts, abilities, and experiences God has given me to serve others. Most importantly, the way forward is to stop worrying whether or not I am a leader and instead focus on being one whenever and wherever I discern God’s call.
What might the way forward look like for you?
Dr. Meryl Herr is a Senior Researcher at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership where she designs and conducts research studies that add to the understanding of what helps marketplace leaders flourish.
Click here to view Meryl’s profile.