There are a fair amount of leaders who are functioning in a leadership role without a clear call to leaderhsip and/or not possessing the gift of leadership.

On the other hand, there are gifted and called leaders who are reluctant for a variety of reasons and are not leading at all. Guest writer Scott Kauffmann for Steve Graves unpacks this for us; great read that will truly get you thinking!

Originally posted by Steve Graves

Four random times this year I am asking a friend to guest write on my blog. I asked them because I think they are great thinkers as well as great writers. They will write an original article connected to my three guiding themes of Strategy | Leadership | Impact. 

Today Scott Kauffmann is our guest. 

Scott is a Partner and Content Lead for Praxis, a venture group for faith-motivated entrepreneurs. He served for eight years as a VP with Redeemer City to City, a leadership development agency for church planters, where he served as Tim Keller’s lead editor and content strategist. Scott began his career with 18 years at Accenture. He lives with his wife and two teenagers in Manhattan.

Contributed by Scott Kauffmann

What if you don’t think you’re a leader … but it turns out you are?

I remember that at some point during my teen years, my mom told me she thought I was going to make a good leader.

I thought: Maybe she’s being kind. Maybe this is a preemptive strike on my dad’s behalf. Maybe she learned with my three older brothers that she’s supposed to say this to sons.

Two things I did not think: She might be right.

And: Is it OK if she’s not?

Who is considered a leader? 

In contemporary Western culture, we’ve assembled a vast ecosystem around the topic of leadership. Uncountable millions of words have been written and hours spent to define, identify, recruit, parse, exhort, convert, and develop good leaders.

The first question, of course, is: Who’s a leader, anyway? Is leadership primarily defined by a position, a type of person, a set of behaviors, a self-image? Or something else?

Some define the leader class very inclusively. This approach supposes that anyone in a role with influence on others is a leader — a parent, a volunteer leader, a highly engaged student, a teacher, a manager or supervisor, even a charismatic and conscientious peer at work. Seniority qualifies: if you’ve developed some competence or life experience that makes you valuable in a civic, social, church, or work environment, you’re a leader. Influence qualifies: if you don’t have positional leadership but people listen to you, you’re a leader. Early promise qualifies: the letter-writing / student government perennial / club-starting high schooler is a leader. Even aspiration qualifies: if you think you are destined to be a leader one day, join the club.

This inclusive definition runs on a pragmatic “leaders are more made than born” mindset. And people lean toward the inclusive definition when they want to sell something to leaders or talk about their offering’s market size or impact.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a very exclusive definition, which is more about special gifts, elite status, and significant positional responsibility for large organizations or movements or schools of thought.

This exclusive definition runs on a heroic “leaders are more born than made” storyline. People lean into this one when they have something fancy to say or expensive to sell.

I’ve actively worked within both paradigms. Over my three-plus decades in the workforce, I’ve been part of many product and service initiatives that were designed, positioned, and messaged explicitly for leaders. I’ve seen the circle drawn very tightly — to C-level executives at Fortune 500 companies, for example — and at other times, very loosely. I’ve run the numbers, read the articles and books, written the copy, sat in the boardrooms, spoken at the seminars, built the training courses, rubbed elbows with the stars. I’ve spent a lot of time in this “who’s a leader, and why, and how” conversation.

And there’s only one constant: wherever the cut line is drawn at the bottom of the leader class, whether practically everybody’s a leader or practically nobody is, one thing’s for sure: you need to be above that line. If you’re not there, you need to be working to get there.

Because who doesn’t want to be a leader?

More people than you’d think, actually.


What interests me is not where the cut line is drawn, but the people who are the last ones to discover that they’re above the line.

I’m fascinated by that curious kind of person with no particular aspiration to positions of leadership. It’s the high performer who thinks of himself primarily as an expert, a craftsman, a specialist, an enthusiast. The charismatic influencer who thinks of herself primarily as a team player, a colleague, even a follower or servant. They’re willing to accept themselves within the inclusive definition of leadership — at some point, it just comes to you by default — but they don’t aspire to clear any more exclusive bar.

I’m not talking about people with that particular kind of humility, like the Level 5 Leaders in Jim Collins’s Good to Great, who are really saying in their hearts, “I’m a leader, but there’s nothing particularly special about me.” Nor even about false humility, which thinks, “I’m a leader, but I’d like you to convince me anyway.”

I’m not talking about those leaders who don’t make a strong first impression but who burn inside with belief: “I’m a leader, no matter what you think, and watch me prove it.”

I’m not talking about what happens when leaders inevitably experience failure and come to doubt their ability or decisions. Nor about Impostor Syndrome, which is when high-performing people can’t acknowledge their accomplishments and fear they will be exposed as frauds. The former is trying to accept failure, and the latter is trying to explain away success, but both are saying, “I’m a leader, but what if I’m not?”

No, the people I’m talking about find themselves one day saying, “I’m not a leader, and I’m fine with that, but what if I am?”

I think most people see reluctance to seek out leadership opportunities as some sort of faulty gene that works itself out of the population over time. And in that view, the only way a self-respecting talented person can solve the problem of reluctance is to strap on more ambition.

The wisdom of our age is that leadership is a function of ability + ambition + destiny. Whatever ability you might have, if for some reason you don’t have the ambition to be a leader — if you don’t want it — then you have to want to want it. You can’t wind up below that cut line.

In thinking of several reluctant leaders and entrepreneurs I’ve known, I don’t think this approach helps. It’s really difficult — perhaps futile — to make yourself want something you don’t want, solely under the power of what you and your community expect for you. It’s basically a form of self-deception, but most of us are too smart to believe ourselves. Instead, we get stuck inside our own limitations, self-absorption seeps into our imagination, our confidence drops. It’s a death spiral.

One friend, an insanely talented founder, put it this way: “For years I’ve simultaneously been obsessed with self-loathing for under-achievement and afraid of risking to achieve.” He sees no way out of the dilemma, and he certainly doesn’t get any help from the leadership literature.

Except that he knows Christianity is true. That’s the only way out.

Destiny vs. vocation 

This is one of those myriad places where the Christian gospel offers a unique and counterintuitive resource, a game-changing way forward. Because we view the equation of leadership not as ambition + ability + destiny, but as ambition + ability + vocation.

As Christians we believe God gives us the gifts for leadership (that’s ability); He gives us the desire for leadership (ambition); and He activates those gifts and desire with a personal, loving, specific call (vocation).

Vocation is different from destiny in at least two ways. First, destiny is impersonal. It doesn’t love you or want the best for you. It just bids you kneel and either rests its sword on your shoulders or hangs it over your head. You can’t reason with destiny or be in a relationship with it. It can’t be trusted, only obeyed.

Believing in destiny is better than believing in yourself, whom you can neither trust nor obey. But it’s nowhere near as good as believing in God, who deserves both your trust and obedience. That is the only place a leader can safely be.

The other big difference is that destiny requires you to succeed. But vocation doesn’t.

A cherished leader once told me I could be sure God was calling me to take a certain career step … but that I couldn’t know up front whether God was calling me to succeed or fail.

It was the most encouraging thing I could have heard at that moment.

The idea that God might be calling me to fail was a life-changing and life-giving insight. If God could be calling me to fail, even if I were to do everything in my power to succeed, it would hurt; it might make me feel worse about myself; and it certainly would make me feel I had let people down, which would be particularly crushing for me. But if I knew and could remember that this is what God was asking me to do for His purposes (granted, a big “if”), I could face that outcome with joy.

All that, plus God might actually be calling me to succeed instead! Which would be great, and it would give me peace in the opposite direction, because I’d know my success came from Him rather than from me. Either way, things went—success or failure—my ultimate identity wouldn’t rest on the outcome.

There’s another wrinkle to the way the Christian formula for leadership (ability + ambition + vocation) works out in the lives of reluctant leaders. This one has to do with sequence.

Usually, we experience the elements in the order of the formula: we demonstrate innate leadership ability from an early age, a natural inclination and desire to lead grows in us, then we sense God’s call to pursue, and be granted, a series of opportunities to lead people, movements, organizations. Ability, then ambition, then vocation.

But for reluctant leaders, our awareness of vocation often predates our ambition. That’s when we experience the moment I mentioned earlier: “I’m not a leader, and I’m fine with that, but what if I am?”

“Please send someone else.” 

 In the account of the life of Moses, we are given a compelling picture of the reluctant leader. In Exodus 2, Moses’ life is miraculously preserved in a way that points to his vocation; yet his catastrophic first attempt at using his influence takes him out of the “leadership pipeline” for forty years. At the site of the burning bush, when God calls him to leadership, it’s an all-vocation, no-ambition moment for Moses (Exodus 3–4).

From his first words (“Here I am”), Moses is willing to be in a relationship with God but has no interest in God’s call to leadership. Five evasive questions into the conversation, Moses’ reluctance has hardened into defiance, at which God becomes angry. Moses finally accepts God’s vocation and goes on to become a fearless leader whom God calls to success (and failure!) over the next forty years.

For Moses, a reluctant leader, ambition comes after vocation. When I read this, I have a sense that Moses’ ambition comes from a place of greater integrity. It’s a gift God gives him for his obedience.

What’s challenging about the story of Moses is to see that his reluctance takes the shape of false and sinful humility. Every objection seems humble and reasonable, but read carefully and you see that Moses is preoccupied only with himself. Moses asks questions about Moses, and God gives answers about God.