If I were to title the most recent chapter of my life, I don’t know if any phrase would be more fitting than this: learning to think like a leader. That’s what I have been doing over the last few years of my adult life. As I’ve grown older, my perspective on life and leadership has continued to shift and change. I don’t always feel like a leader but, whether I like it or not, leadership is a part of who I am. I am a leader to my children. I am a leader to my team. I am a leader within our church. So, rather than trying to fight it or rationalize it, I might as well embrace it and get better at it.
Leaders think differently. No matter what context you find yourself in, regardless of your leadership style or gifts, effective leadership is going to begin in your thinking. I am no leadership expert, and this is not a masterclass, but there are some lessons I have been learning over the last few years that may be helpful for you on your leadership journey. There is a lot to be said about the mindset of a leader. In this article, I am going to focus on five areas of our thinking. They all begin with the letter “c.” I hope you’ll forgive me for that.
1. Think Clarity
You will never be effective as a leader until you are clear. And clarity starts in your own head. If you are not clear on it, no one will be. Whatever you’re thinking through, you need to think it all the way through. If you’re anything like me, you may tend to think a little too much and move a little too slowly. But my guess is, in our mile-a-minute world, you may have the opposite inclination. If you like to move quickly and see preparation as a necessary evil, let me encourage you: take some extra time on the front end, save some time on the back end. Count the cost before you start to build. In the words of John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach: “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” Before you start running, get clear on where you would like to go.
2. Think Collaboration
There is only so much you can accomplish alone. If you want to go far in your leadership, you are going to have to bring others along with you. You have gifts and strengths, but you also have blind spots and weaknesses. A great team can spot your blind spots and offset your weaknesses. The challenge of collaboration is the friction it brings. Working with people is not always easy, and sometimes we choose to part ways rather than work through the difficulties. But if you can learn to channel the energy friction produces, you can use it to fuel the work you’re doing. Friction can start a fire: a fire contained can warm a house, a fire out of control can burn it down. Don’t give in to the temptation to abandon collaboration in favor of the path of least resistance. Resistance makes you stronger. Disagreement refines an idea. A thesis confronted with an antithesis forms a synthesis. Collaboration makes you better.
3. Think Completion
I used to be a perfectionist, until I realized that a perfectionist is a terrible thing to be. Someone seeking perfection in this life is going to be constantly disappointed. Because it’s not possible. It’s also not a real thing. What is the perfect song? What is the perfect movie? What is the perfect design? The answer is, there is none. All we have is great versions of all of these things. So, rather than pursuing perfection, I decided to pursue excellence. Because excellence is a real, tangible, measurable thing.
Yet even greatness can be overrated. You know what I’m even more into these days? Done. Completed. The older I get, the more I find myself developing a bias for action. I just want to do something. I want to get it done. Of course I want to do it well. But I’ve learned that good on time is better than great late. Instead of wasting time obsessing over the perfect version of whatever it is I’m working on, I want to commit to completing something, then assessing its value. If it’s not great, we can revise and improve, or we can abandon the project and go do something else.
4. Think Correction
Leaders have a bias for action, and they always want to improve themselves and their work. That is why evaluation is essential. Without creating space to evaluate what we’re doing, we leave ourselves susceptible to staying busy without being effective. There’s this assumption out there that experience makes you better. But it’s actually not true. Your experience doesn’t make you better unless you evaluate your past performance and adjust your future behavior. That’s how things get better.
If you are going to be an effective leader, you are going to have to make constant corrections. That means correcting yourself, your systems, and the people around you. Every problem is an opportunity for improvement. Every conflict is an opportunity for coaching. The fastest way to promotion is to solve a problem. Leaders who make constant corrections are valuable to any team they’re on, any project they’re leading, and any organization they’re a part of. There is always room for correction and improvement, and it takes a leader to step into that gap and get it done.
5. Think Calling
Maybe the most important facet of the mindset of a leader is her sense of calling. People will work for a paycheck, but they will die for a calling. I’m not saying you need to lay down your life for your job. All I’m saying is that a sense of calling will carry you through the tough times. If I didn’t have a conviction that God had called me to the work I am doing, I might have quit by now. Because when things get hard, cool doesn’t carry you through. Trends change, fads come and go. Opportunists jump on board when the weather is clear and jump ship when the storm hits. That’s not the kind of life I want to live. I want to live with a sense of conviction, knowing that, if God called me to it, his grace will see me through it.