Leadership – Taking Initiative

Leadership by definition is simply taking the lead.  The dictionary says that to lead is “to guide, to march ahead of, to go before as a guide, or to show the way.”

When you really look at those phrases, you understand that to lead is an action, a going. “To go,” even if no one else is coming. You go. Yet the very fact that someone will go ensures that others will follow. Most of this world is waiting for someone to go, to initiate.

When we were new missionaries in the Philippines, Denie and I discovered something very interesting about Philippine culture. We were invited by the pastor of Union Church in Makati to conduct a marriage retreat. In our past marriage retreats, we would take couples through a process of several evaluations, one of which was a personality survey. This was based on the four major personalities profiles known as Choleric, Sanguine, Melancholy and Phlegmatic.  

Before we conducted this survey we gave a detailed explanation of the characteristics of each personality type. We had done this numbers of times in the past, but never before in the Philippines. As the couples filled out their personality profiles, what we discovered was a shock. There is a huge shift in personality composition between western culture and the Philippines, as well as other parts of Asia.

In the western churches and broader culture, there are a significantly higher number of Choleric personalities. Westerners are born and raised to be independent, strongly individualistic people. Denie and I learned quickly that in our Philippine context, the opposite was true. People are raised to be group-centric, to be cooperative, to not “rock the boat.” The percentage of choleric people was very small in that marriage retreat, and we have continued to find that in our leadership trainings. 

Cholerics are the initiators, the forward-moving people, the pushers, and the take-over personalities. Often these people just by virtue of their personalies are asked to be or promoted as leaders. To be clear, personality alone does not cut it as a leader. You may be an initiator by personality, yet that does not make you a leader. But a choleric personality definitely is common in a leader. So how do we find and develop leaders in a culture that values “group-think” and frowns on boat-rocking?

I listened to John Maxwell several years ago teaching on the role of personality and leadership. He was discussing the subject of American mega-church pastors and their personality profiles. One of the questions asked of John was, “What kind of personality does it take to pastor a mega-church of many thousands?” John’s reply was this: “I can show you successful mega-church pastors from all four of the major personality profiles.”  

Some folks might think that all the pastors of thousands of people must be choleric personalities. But that is not necessarily true. We can’t ever say when discussing leadership, “I can’t be a leader because I’m not a strong choleric person. I’m not comfortable with this or that. I’m not an aggressive person. That’s not me.” Rethink this attitude. You don’t have to be aggressive and pushy to be a leader.

We have learned that leadership is a skill. Other than character qualities, all functions that effective leaders perform are things that they have learned and developed. If you put someone into a leadership position solely because they are choleric in personality, they will likely just do all the work themselves and get a lot done, but may not have many following them.

Let’s go back to our discovery of our Asian context. So why is there such a huge difference between East and West? There are several possibilities.

  • Education. Most Asian educational systems are based on memory work or learning by rote. Exam study is based on intensive reviews. In the western model, the learning from earliest grades is interactive and encourages critical and analytical thinking. Each student has a say. This type of education pushes you to ask questions and speak up. In Asia we likely would not disagree with the instructor nor would we challenge anything the teacher says. We are taught to “group think.” A friend of mine visited an American school where my daughter was attending and commented how well-behaved and quiet the children were. They lined up to go to the playground in military precision and were silent until they reached the playground where they were released to play. I explained that along with the ability to question and the freedom to speak up, the teachers taught obedience and listening. No voices were raised. Everyone was “heard.” 
  • Individualism. In the west we are raised from earliest childhood to “do our own thing” and launch out at a young age in our own homes and careers. Parents almost never choose the path or the spouse their children will take, nor so they interfere with their choices. Most western young adults leave home at 18 and never move back home. They raise their families independently and elderly parents are very seldom part of the family but rather live in senior centers and are very proud of their independence as they age. Asian culture is very different from this. Many young adults go into a career dictated by their parents. Spouses are screened and either encouraged or discouraged strongly by the parents. The children as they grow are often clustered around the aging parents’ home, sometimes even in compounds, and are often expected to financially support and care for their elders. 
  • Confrontation/Disagreement. Asian models of interaction value getting along, keeping things smooth, not getting people upset, and being a good team player as a crowning point of good relationships.  Western interaction values open and honest dialogue and polite confrontation or disagreement as a sign of strength and leadership potential. Getting along with everyone is considered a sign of weakness and being a “yes-man.”

To be clear, if you are obnoxious and cannot get along with people, you will not last in leadership anywhere in the world unless you are feared as the dictator. On the other hand, if you are a leader and no one ever gets upset with you, you are not much of a leader.

  • Independent thinking. In Western cultures, there is high value placed on striking out in an area that is unfamiliar and difficult. The “pioneer” spirit is strong in the history of westerners, where you learn as you go along and making mistakes is acceptable and honorable. In Asian cultures, most people are quite happy to be in a group but reluctant to lead that group lest they make mistakes. “That’s not my personality” is the excuse. Also in Asian thinking, training is the first necessity of leadership, rather than a call or opportunity. To do something new means “I need to be taught first. I need a course, some training, more classes before I will feel comfortable doing something new.” 

I’ve taught courses on leadership at the Asian Seminary. My conclusion was that most of the students were there for the wrong reasons. They were there for knowledge. But unless you have highly developed analytical skills, you will not be able to turn mere knowledge into something you can implement. Often as I attended graduations of Bachelors and Masters level students, I grieved to hear their future plans, “I plan to continue in my studies.” Rarely did I hear, “I’m graduating and I’m going to plant a church, open a ministry or I plan to build something.”

I have nothing against knowledge. But no amount of knowledge will automatically turn into leadership skills. Skills can come by observing someone else’s effective work and behavior and then figuring out how to do something similar. Then doing it! Skill-learning involves experimentation. Trying, failing, trying again…over and over and over. That’s how most people become good at something. I wish someone had taught me that when I started. I’d have tried a lot more things!!

  • Aloneness. In the western mindset, being alone is a sign of strength and ability. For example, in Sweden over 20% of the population lives alone. 14% of Canadians live alone. 15% of senior Americans live alone. In Asia, being alone is not something usually desired. Great joy is found in being part of a group or a family. Can you personally imagine living alone? But westerners view it as something to be proud of. One thing I guarantee you; these people living alone are used to making decisions and managing their lives. This is a leadership skill that is lacking in Asia: it’s really hard to manage others if you are not in the habit of managing yourself. If you require permission or input from those around you to step out into something new, it’s a handicap rather than a blessing. 

As you consider the possible reasons we lack leaders in Asia, ask yourself the question, “Do I want to make a difference for God?” The greatest contributions to Kingdom work are made by Kingdom leaders.  

This school of ministry is under the heading of DEL– Developing Effective leaders. That says it all. Not just leading, but effectively leading. Not just learning or adding knowledge, but stepping out and actually doing something afterwards.

“It’s only after you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone that you begin to change, grow, and transform.” Roy T. Bennett.

All that I have said so far is to attempt to make you aware of cultural mindsets that cause you struggle in leadership. If John Maxwell is right when he says that everything rises and falls on leadership, then without leaders who are initiating positive healthy action, every home, church and ministry will fail.

I like this definition of leadership: “Getting things done.” A leader will get things done. A leader will take the initiative to get things done. Their highest value is not merely going through the motions of the work, but rather the actual accomplishments. Their highest value is not perfection; it’s the trying, the making mistakes, the DOING.

Someone says, is this Biblical? Well, let’s give some illustrations. Take some time to think about the characters in the Bible. Most are known for the initiatives they took. Yes, of course God often instructed them or they inquired of God. But they didn’t sit on those instructions; they initiated a visible action.

The Apostle Paul is known for taking the gospel to the Gentiles- where no one had dared to go before. He took the lead.

When Andrew met Jesus, the first thing he did was go and find Peter. He took the lead.

Philip the Evangelist approached the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch. He offered to explain the Scriptures, led the man to Christ and then baptized him. He took the lead.

Aquila and Priscilla heard Apollos preach. They knew he needed doctrinal help, so they took him home and explained to him “the way of God” more perfectly. They took the lead.

Was David asked to face Goliath, or did he insist on Saul allowing him to fight the giant? He took the lead.

Was Caleb asked to take the mountain in Kiriath Hebron or did he demand it for himself? “Give me this mountain!” he said. He took the lead.

Was Isaiah asked to run with the message of God or did he volunteer? He said those powerful words, “Here I am; send me.” He took the lead.

You may be a good and obedient follower. But can you now become a good and obedient leader? Leaders are all independent thinkers. I could not follow those leaders who will not think for themselves. For you, this may take a change of mindset, and some great discipline. It’s so much easier to ask someone else to tell you what to do. It’s hard to think it through, pray it through, and make a decision. 

What if you make a mistake? I’ll tell you what. You keep going. Mistakes are a sign of effort. The leader who does nothing makes few mistakes, but accomplishes nothing, nothing, nothing! The leaders who do something make mistakes, but they are willing to learn. They never waste a mistake. They FAIL FORWARD. They learn something for tomorrow.

Where do we start learning how to “take the lead” when we have been raised in a culture that values good followers and “groupthink?”  

1. Lead your own life. Take personal initiatives.  Set some goals in your own life towards growth and skill. Don’t ask for input or advice or permission. Then complete them on your own.   Practice leadership with yourself first.

2. Find a need and fill it. Identify a need. Write down possible options to meet that need. If it is greater than you can do alone, enlist some people to help. They will be your followers and you will be the leader. Be enthusiastic. Write a plan and start. Set small step-by-step goals.  Keep going and follow through.

3. Accept an assignment joyfully. Leaders do not complain about assignments. They love a challenge. All the rewards come after completing a challenge. If you never complete a challenge, you never have any rewards. Never let your first thought be, “I don’t know how to do that!” So what?  You are not stupid. You can learn. “But I don’t know where to start!” Start by defining the finished project and work your way backward. 

4. Consider starting something no one has ever done before in a way no one has ever done it before. If the mission is noble and just, if the vision is godly, if it is for the glory of God, if it grows the Kingdom and the local church, then do it. Ignore all the critics. The critics are not doing anything. That’s why they have time to criticize. 

“It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses, we must plant more roses.” 
― George Eliot

“It is not often that a man can make opportunities for himself. But he can put himself in such shape that when or if the opportunities come he is ready.” 

Theodore Roosevelt

LEADERS TAKE THE LEAD. BE A LEADER! START TODAY!

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