Above is a Roman legion within seconds of clashing with the enemy shield wall. Every soldier in the front line is practically guaranteed death. Yet, as we look to the far left of the image, we see a man who seems to stand out from the rest. His sword is drawn, his eyes are inspecting every detail of the massive line of soldiers. This is their leader, their Centurion. As was tradition, he fights alongside them. Because of this, it should come as no surprise that although this coveted position came with great honor and respect, it also came with the highest fatality rate.
It’s hard for us to relate with someone so willing to put themselves in harm’s way, and for what? Dying with honor in battle? We can’t understand this because self-sacrifice is often one of the last behavioral practices encouraged in our society. In the ancient world, however, they believed it was an honor to serve — and not only to serve, but to serve and die for a cause they believed in. It was the ultimate mark of their honor.
So what happened? What caused the leaders of today to be so different from leaders of 2,000 years ago — to change from the men leading the charge to the men ordering it? I would argue the difference is a mere change in definition. If what we call a leader has changed, then of course, the way we practice leadership must have changed as well.
Those who lead
Far too often, I hear people saying, “Yeah, I’ve always displayed leadership qualities. I’ve been in charge of every group project, organized our family events, I’m really good at telling people what to do, etc…” That’s not what a leader is. Good organizational skills, knowledge of the situation, and the ability to give commands are important for many types of leadership, but those skills are not in themselves leadership qualities. To people like that, I like to say “Yes, you know what you’re talking about, and yes, you talk about it quite often, but you’re not a leader.”
A leader is a guide, not a commander. By commander, I simply mean someone who issues orders. A leader may very well play the role of commander at certain points in their life. As a matter of fact, leaders often find themselves in positions where they are required to constantly give commands (military officer, restaurant manager, etc), but the reason leaders get promoted to these roles is because they are the men and women who can effectively get things done, who lead the way, and who inspire others to follow. Anyone can say to another “move this table,” and inspire them to do so out of fear. It takes a leader to say “let’s move this table,” and inspire out of love. Better yet, a leader is someone who begins to move a table, and without even having to ask for assistance, others see and come to help because they know he or she would do the same for them.
Leaders are the trendsetters, the shepherds, the ones who make a point to always be an example. You might think to yourself, “Well this is all fine and dandy, but by definition a leader needs followers. Therefore, I need followers before I can lead.” If that’s you, then you’ve missed the point. What makes someone a leader is the fact that they don’t care if anyone follows, because they believe what they are doing is right. Leadership starts as a mindset long before it ever becomes a reality. All that a leader is, is an example, and because of this, they need no followers. If followers come, so be it. If not, you are doing what you think needs to be done. You are forging a path through the jungle because you want to get to the other side. Who cares if the next person uses your path or makes their own? Whether you have 0 or 1,000 followers shouldn’t change your opinion on whether or not you need that path, and that should be your mindset. You must always stay consistent with your core beliefs. However, this greatly differs from what many today view as leadership. Many would say the one who gathers a group of people and has them work to create a path is the leader, but according to our definition, they still don’t have followers, they have order takers. You must begin before others can follow. Do you see the difference now? A leader is the one who takes point on the charge. A commander is the one who orders it.
Who can lead?
Therefore, the problem with our modern view of leadership is that it is almost completely meshed with our idea of a boss, a drill sergeant, or that mean substitute teacher who always yelled at the little kids. We for some reason think that “leader” means “authority,” and that is just plain wrong. It should be clear at this point that leadership doesn’t require a whole lot. We don’t need to be extroverted, charismatic, popular, etc… We don’t need to be pastors, worship leaders, or Sunday school teachers. This is because it’s not about personality. It’s not about power. It’s about attitude, drive, and the willingness to look ridiculous because you will see your dreams through even while others just laugh. You will put in as much or more work than everyone else, and no one will ever be able to discourage you. Authority is not needed to lead, either. All that is needed is a cause and the will to fight for it. This is rather cliche, but take Jesus for example: He was an introverted carpenter’s son. Yet He developed an enormously large following. It’s because he was consistent, caring, and self-sacrificing. And who did He choose to bear His Word? Fishermen, publicans, tax collectors, women (who were not respected at that time), and His former persecutors. These people were hated and poor, but Christ chose them, conveniently proving my point by showing that leadership does not require greatness or likability. Leadership requires only conviction and the resolution to carry out that conviction.
It should be apparent, then, that I believe anyone can be a leader. Whether it’s setting an example of good table manners, being the first person to to sit next to that weird kid at school, or simply living a godly lifestyle, everyone is capable of doing what they think right. In order to do that, you first need to find a cause to be believe in. You need to find something so meaningful to you that you are willing to behave in the self sacrificing, impassioned, devoted, way that men did so long ago. You need to focus on it with every fiber of your being. Again, if others follow, that’s great! If not, it doesn’t matter! If you truly believe what you are doing is right, it doesn’t matter if anyone follows – you are the leader. So what do you believe in? What will you sacrifice for? What makes you think to yourself “it’s an honor to serve”? Find that, stick to it, and that’s all it takes. You set the example. You take the lead.