Howard Hendricks was one of my professors at Dallas Theological Seminary. He was an absolute master in the classroom, modeling excellence in teaching, care for the student, and the highest caliber of skill in communication. It was a gift to watch him lead. Prof. Hendricks’ son, Bill Hendricks, was interviewed and asked, “How do you define ‘leadership,’ and how did your Dad model that?” He answered:
I always think back to the simplest definition of leadership I’ve heard, which I learned from Dad’s friend Fred Smith, Sr. He said, “Followers—that is what leadership is all about. If people are not following you, you are not a leader. You may have the title, but that’s all.”i I look back at my dad’s life and work, and I see that the man absolutely loved teaching; that’s an understatement, actually. He’d say, “I love to teach; I live to teach. I’d teach whether or not they paid me to teach (but don’t tell the seminary that!).” In pursuing the craft of teaching, Dad learned a lot about leadership. He read all the books, met with leaders, and had conversations about leadership everywhere he went. From that perspective, he was obviously an expert in leadership. But he didn’t aspire to the title of “leader.” He didn’t create an organization, manage employees, or intentionally train a successor. Instead, he was a great communicator who happened to focus on leadership.
I do not agree that having followers is what leadership is “all about,” though I affirm that leaders have followers. And people will follow those with titles, though not for long if those holding a title neither steward their responsibilities well nor demonstrate a capacity to lead effectively according to their gifts. Titles are placeholders for authority, but not the source. Authority comes from people, from their lives. According to Bill Hendricks, it stems from gifts. I’d say yes, and character.
Your leadership is a function of your own giftedness. It’s possible to have the title of leader, but if no one is following you, then you’re not a leader. Conversely, you might not perceive yourself as a leader and might not have the title, but you look behind you and find that people are following. Leadership is not about titles or positions; it’s about your giftedness and the people who follow you. Play to your strengths and surround yourself with people who have the strengths you lack.
Leadership can be learned. Leadership gifts differ. Two things can be true at the same time. Wise leaders understand their gifts and appreciate that their ability to lead effectively has only a little to do with their title. Titles are important only insofar they clarify responsibilities and further the mission.
The best leaders surround themselves with other strong leaders and build an effective team. The purpose of the leadership venture is seen as bigger and more important than the personalities. They are more concerned with leading than they are with labels. They focus on goals. High quality, high character leaders are often more concerned with the work getting done, projects being completed, the right kind of workplace culture, and good and positive ideas being championed than they are with what people call them.
Some of the best leaders are the last to know they are leaders. They are too busy looking ahead. They find out they are leading when they look left and right and see they are gladly accompanied by quality companions. They look back and see others following along, sharing in the work. After that discovery is made, what follows is stewardship, and legacy, which both are part of the challenge of leadership.