Chapter OneYOU ARE DOING
The secret of concentration is elimination.
[Dr. Howard Hendricks]
It is both natural and necessary for young leaders to try
to prove themselves by doing everything themselves. It is
natural because, as a leader, you want to set the pace even as
you demonstrate that nothing is beneath you. It is necessary
because most of the time nobody is around to help. But
what may initially be natural and necessary will ultimately
limit your effectiveness.
Perhaps the two best-kept secrets of leadership are these:
1. The less you do, the more you accomplish.
2. The less you do, the more you enable others to
As a young leader, my biggest mistake was allowing my
time to be eaten up with things outside my core competencies.
I devoted an inordinate amount of my first seven years
in ministry to things I was not good at-things I wouldnever be good at. At the same time, I invested little energy in
developing my strengths.
I am a good communicator. I am not a good manager.
I am a good visioncaster. I am not good at follow-up. I know
how to prepare a message. I am not good at planning an event.
And yet early on I did nothing to hone my communication
skills. Instead, I spent a great deal of time trying to
become a better manager and a better event planner. When
it came to communication, I would often wing it because
the time I should have used to prepare talks had been consumed
by other things. And this was the one area in which Icould wing it.
The problem was that somewhere along the way I had
bought into the myth that a good leader has to be good at
everything. So I operated under the assumption that I had
to upgrade my weaknesses into strengths. After all, who
would follow a leader who wasn't well-rounded?
After graduate school I went to work for my dad. As a
minister to students my primary responsibilities revolved
around developing a strategy for involving junior high and
high school students in the life of the church.
The fact that this was my first job opportunity after grad
school, combined with the reality that I was working for my
dad, sent me into the workforce determined to succeed. I
felt the need to prove myself by working harder than everyone
else around me. I came in early and went home late. I
was in constant motion.
But I did not work smart. The majority of my time was
devoted to tasks I was not good at. I was eight years into my
career before I realized that my real value to our organization
lay within the context of my giftedness, not the number
of hours I worked.
From that point forward I began looking for ways to
redefine my job description according to what I was good at,
rather than simply what I was willing to do. I discovered that
there were some balls I had no business juggling. When I
finally mustered the courage to let 'em fall to the floor and
roll over in the corner, I began to excel in juggling the two or
three balls I was created to keep in the air in the first place.
My success attracted others who were committed to the
same cause. While we shared the same passion for students,
our skill-sets were different. It wasn't long before they began
picking up the stray balls I had let fall. The responsibilities I
was reluctant to relinquish turned out to be opportunities
for others. The very activities that drained me fueled other
Consequently, I began to do more communicating and
less event planning. I learned how to spend the majority of
my time at the thirty-thousand-foot level while remaining
accessible to team members who were closer to the action. I
spent more time strategizing and less time problem solving.
I became far more proactive about what I allowed on my
calendar. I became more mission-driven rather than need-driven,
and now I want to give you that same vision as it
relates to your core competencies:
ONLY DO WHAT ONLY YOU CAN DO.
This might seem unrealistic from where you sit today. You
might even laugh out loud. But once you get past the seeming
improbability of this axiom, write it down and work toward it.
What are the two or three things that you and only you
are responsible for? What, specifically, have you been hired
to do? What is "success" for the person in your position?
Now let's slice it even thinner. Of the two or three
things that define success for you, which of those are in line
with your giftedness? Of the tasks you have been assigned to
do, which of them are you specifically gifted to do?
That is where you must focus your energies. That is
your sweet spot. That is where you will excel. Within that
narrowed context you will add the most value to your organization.
Success within that sphere has the potential to make
you indispensable to your employer.
Best of all, you will enjoy what you do.
"Impossible!" you say. "I can't afford to focus my energies
on only a percentage of my overall responsibilities!"
Maybe not yet. But you owe it to yourself to identify the
areas in which you have the highest probability for success.
You owe it to your employer to identify the areas in which
you could add the most value to your organization. You
can't aim for a target until you have identified it. We're talking
about a mind-set here, a perspective, a way of thinking.
This is a vision. This is something you must work toward to
maximize your potential as a leader.
During the 2001 baseball season, Greg Maddux of the
Atlanta Braves had a batting average of .253-average by
professional standards. Yet he is one of the most highly
sought-after players in the National Baseball League. Why?
Because in his role as pitcher, he struck out 173 batters the
previous year. His skill with a bat is not what makes him an
indispensable part of the lineup. His ninety-mile-an-hour
Should he spend more time working on his hitting?
Maybe-but certainly not at the expense of his pitching.
The moment a leader steps away from his core competencies,
his effectiveness as a leader diminishes. Worse, the
effectiveness of every other leader in the organization suffers
too. In time, a leader who is not leading from the right "zone"
will create an unfavorable environment for other leaders.
Let me explain. Using John Maxwell's one-to-ten
leadership scale, score yourself as a leader1. If you are an
exceptional leader, give yourself an eight or a nine. If you
consider yourself an average leader, give yourself a five or a
six. For the sake of illustration, let's say that when you're at
the top of your game you are a seven.
Maxwell argues that at a seven, you will attract followers
who are fives and sixes. If you were a nine, you would attract
sevens and eights. In other words, leaders attract other leaders
whose skills come close to matching but rarely surpass
Perhaps you've known the frustration of working for someone
whose leadership skills were inferior to yours. It probably
wasn't long before you were looking for another place to work.
On the other hand, you might know the thrill of working
for leaders whose leadership skills were superior to yours.
Such environments probably brought out the best in you.
Now, back to my point. Assuming you are a seven, you will
be at your best when you are in your zone-that is, when you
are devoting your time to the things you are naturally gifted to
do. That's when you operate as a seven. And as a seven, you
will attract fives and sixes. And, if you are secure, other sevens.
Furthermore, you may have seven potential, but outside
your core competencies you will lead like a six. If you continue
in that mode, you will lose the devotion and possibly
the respect of the other sixes around you. In time, you will
dumb down the leadership level of your entire organization-everybody
Like most good principles, this one is somewhat intuitive.
It makes sense. Yet many a leader has leaned his shoulder into
the wind and forged ahead, determined to do it all and do it
all well. In fact, you may get into a head-versus-heart battle of
your own as you reflect on the implications of this idea. No
doubt your heart leaps with excitement at the thought of concentrating
on the areas in which you naturally excel.
Intuitively you know that's the way to go. But your head says,
"Wait a minute-it can't be that simple!"
After challenging hundreds of leaders to play to their
strengths, I have identified five primary obstacles to a leader
adopting this way of thinking.
1. THE QUEST FOR BALANCE
The first thing that sometimes keeps next generation leaders
from playing to their strengths is that the idea of being a
balanced or well-rounded leader looks good on paper and
sounds compelling coming from behind a lectern, but in
reality, it is an unworthy endeavor. Read the biographies of
the achievers in any arena of life. You will find over and over
that these were not "well-rounded" leaders. They were men
and women of focus.
We should strive for balance organizationally, but it is
not realistic to strive for balance within the sphere of our personal
leadership abilities. Striving for balance forces a leader
to invest time and energy in aspects of leadership where he
will never excel. When the point person in an organization
strives for balance, he potentially robs other leaders of an
opportunity to perform at the top of their game.
My current context for leadership is the local church.
Like most churches, ours has a component that focuses
exclusively on high school students. The person who tackles
that responsibility is usually someone who excels in leading
people from the platform. Student pastors are often animated,
The fellow who leads that charge at North Point is not.
Kevin Ragsdale is a great example of a singularly focused,
highly effective leader. Yet Kevin's strength is administration.
By his own admission, Kevin is not a great platform
personality. Rather than waste his time trying to become
proficient in an area where he may never excel, Kevin has
trained and mentored a group of individuals who are gifted
communicators and visioncasters.
In other words, Kevin is not well-rounded in his leadership
ability, but his organization is well-rounded. He focuses
on what he is gifted in and empowers others to do the same.
Consequently, anyone who walks into our student environments
will be wowed by the excellence of communication,
but equally impressed by the quality of the programming
and the organization that supports it.
When a leader attempts to become well-rounded, he
brings down the average of the organization's leadership
quotient-which brings down the level of the leaders
around him. Don't strive to be a well-rounded leader.
Instead, discover your zone and stay there. Then delegate
2. FAILURE TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN
AUTHORITY AND COMPETENCE
The second reason leaders don't always play to their strengths
is that they have yet to distinguish between authority and
competency. Every leader has authority over arenas in which
he has little or no competence. When we exert our authority
in an area where we lack competence, we can derail projects
and demotivate those who have the skills we lack.
On any given Sunday morning I have the authority to
walk into our video control room and start barking out
orders. The fact that I don't know the first thing about
what's going on in there does not diminish my authority.
Eventually the crew would do what I asked them to do. But
the production would suffer horribly. If I were to do that
Sunday after Sunday, our best and brightest volunteers
would leave. Eventually our paid staff would start looking
for something else to do as well.
There is no need to become an expert in, or even to
understand, every component of your organization. When
you try to exercise authority within a department that is
outside your core competencies, you will hinder everything
and everyone under your watch. If you fail to distinguish
between authority and competence, you will exert your
influence in ways that damage projects and people.
To put it bluntly, there are things you are responsible for
that you should keep your nose out of.
3. INABILITY TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN
COMPETENCIES AND NONCOMPETENCIES
Leaders who are successful in one arena often assume competency
in arenas where in fact they have none. As a result,
they miss opportunities to leverage their strengths. As we
will discuss later, success is an intoxicant, and intoxicated
people seldom have a firm grasp on reality. Successful leaders
tend to assume that their core competencies are broader
than they actually are.
Worse, the more successful an individual is, the less
likely it is that anyone will bring this unpleasant fact to his
attention. Consequently, a leader considered an expert in
one area is often treated as an expert in others as well.
Leaders who are not in touch with their own weaknesses
feel that they are as good as anybody else in their organization
at anything that pertains to leadership. Many have even
bought into the false notion that great leaders have no weaknesses.
In their minds, to admit weakness is to diminish
their effectiveness. Such leaders tend to hide their weaknesses,
assuming they ever discover them.
Recently I received a call from a board member of an
international organization. He wanted my advice about how
to handle a conflict between the board and the founder of
the organization, who was serving as president. The president
was a gifted visioncaster who had raised a great deal of
capital for the company. In fact, the success of this organization
was due in large part to his ability to communicate
effectively to a wide range of audiences.
But he was not a particularly great businessman. The
board wanted to hire a top-notch CFO, but the president
believed he could continue to oversee that aspect of the
organization in his role as president. In recent days the
president had made decisions that raised questions about
his business savvy. It was apparent to everyone except him
that he needed to stay out of the business side and focus his
attention on what made him and the company successful to
begin with. His problem was not IQ; it was insight. He just
didn't get it.
In general, an inability to own up to personal shortcomings
is often rooted in some sort of insecurity. This can be
easy to see in others but next to impossible to see in ourselves.
It takes a certain amount of personal security to
And the truth is that admitting a weakness is a sign of
strength. Acknowledging weakness doesn't make a leader less
effective. On the contrary, in most cases it is simply a way of
expressing that he understands what everyone else has
known for some time. When you acknowledge your weaknesses
to the rest of your team, it is never new information.
Some leaders don't play only to their strengths because they
feel guilty delegating their weaknesses.
This is where I struggle. I assume everybody hates to do
the things I hate to do. For years I felt guilty delegating
responsibilities that I really didn't want to get involved with
in the first place. It took me a while to realize that the leaders
around me were energized by the very things that drained
the life out of me.
As I mentioned earlier, planning and producing events
is not one of my strengths. Planning just about anything is
terribly stressful to me. Early in my career I would apologetically
delegate event planning, incorrectly assuming that
everyone dreaded this type of thing as much as I did. Yet I
assumed I was doing everybody a favor when I took responsibility
for planning and producing events.