As the pastor of a young church, I get to interact with a lot of young people, many of whom dream of doing something significant with their lives. To quote the late Steve Jobs, they long to make a dent in the universe. They want their life to matter. I love getting to spend time with young people who aren’t content to settle for the status quo and who long to make a difference. That said, there are some things I’ve noticed that are common to aspiring young leaders that often get in the way of them actually seeing those dreams realized.
So here are a few pieces of advice I have for aspiring young leaders:
1. Learn to follow.
Leaders tend to want to lead, and that isn’t always a bad thing. After all, the Apostle Paul did say whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task (1 Tim 3:1). But Paul also gave us a great picture of what that leadership is supposed to look like: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). In other words, Christian leaders are primarily in the following business. This is so important for aspiring leaders to get because the idea of leading can sound pretty sexy. Aspiring to lead can pretty naturally play to our pride, but following develops in us humility. For this reason it is vitally important that young leaders learn how to follow first. This means not only learning how to follow Jesus, but also learning how to follow those he has placed above us. Until you can do that joyfully, you’re not ready to lead yet. Learning how to follow is an important part of becoming a leader worth following.
2. Find a mentor.
Great leaders never stop learning. Many of the very best continue to have coaches and mentors even as they sit at the highest levels of leadership in their company or organization. The truth is it’s never too late or too early to find a mentor. So find one (or three) and starting asking questions. Listen well to what they have to say. Give them permission to speak hard truths into your life. And take really good notes. Not only will this allow you to draw from their wealth of knowledge and experience, but it’ll help you avoid having to learn what they have the hard way.
3. Finish what you start.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given as an aspiring young leader was, “Do everything you can to finish what you start.” That was not my track record up until that time, but I took his advice and it changed my life. I meet a lot of passionate young people who jump from one thing to the next without finishing many of the things they’ve started. As my mentor pointed out to me in my early 20’s, this is a character issue. It’s a sign of immaturity and selfishness as we what we want or feel right now is given complete precedence. It breaks trust with others as they come to realize we can’t be counted on to follow through on what we’ve said. It develops a really bad habit that will not serve you well as you grow older. And it shortcuts the character development that happens in the hard work of persevering (Rom 5:3-4), a necessary quality for every leader. So finish what you start. No matter how badly you want to quit, no matter how hard it gets, finish and finish well.
4. Decide who you want to be and act accordingly.
This might sound obvious, but it’s important to realize you’re not just going to roll out of bed one day and be who you want to be. You won’t just stumble into your dream job. You won’t be an overnight success (there’s no such thing). You won’t accidentally become more wise, more talented, more connected, more faithful, more spiritual, more mature, more disciplined, more developed, more successful, more ___________. You will be who you have decided to be, whether actively or passively. Your person and as a result, your life, will be a reflection of the decisions you make over time. So you need to decide now who you want to be and what kind of life you want to live and begin practicing the habits that will get you there today.
5. Don’t wait for permission.
I meet a lot of young people who plan to do something someday, but are doing little to move that direction right now. But here’s the thing: you can start doing some of the things you want to do someday today. And doing it today is the best way to figure out whether you actually want to do it someday. You want to start a business? Awesome. Start one. Even if it fails in six months and you don’t net a single dollar, you will have learned more trying and failing than you will sitting around reading Fast Company for the next five years. The same goes for most anything else. You want to go into ministry? Great. Start doing ministry today. Take responsibility for spiritually investing in those in your relational circles now. Then pay attention to what happens. If you see fruit, that’s a really good sign. If not, at least you’ve got some experience to process with your mentor before you invest a whole lot of years and money in a ministry education you may never use. The point is you can start right where you are, right now. Don’t wait for permission.
**So what about you? What advice would you give to aspiring young leaders?**