People don’t directly confront me often, so I typically remember when they do. One of those moments happened a few years ago when I was volunteering with a campus ministry. I had a variety of responsibilities, but some things just seemed like a waste of my time. Some other events were just far outside my comfort zone. But after a few months, the leader invited me to meet with her at a local café. She told me that she appreciated my efforts, but that I had to make a decision. Leadership, she said, was not a buffet that I could choose from. Picking and choosing how we lead limits how effective we are. So if I wanted to continue volunteering, I needed to accept that I might need to do things I didn’t want to do. I responded by moving on from that organization, but that conversation has stuck with me.
I remembered that lesson as I was reading Words of Radiance. Dalinar Kholin is one of the princes in Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy novel. Early in the series he considers giving up his throne as he fears that he cannot be the leader his people need. A week after first revealing his intentions, he again meets with his sons in a private conference. His sons are against the abdication and Adolin complains that he doesn’t want to be prince yet. Wise Dalinar responds simply, “Leadership is rarely about what we want.” He goes on to lament the fact that too few of the other princes recognize that. It’s been a hard lesson for me, too.
Dalinar is saying the same thing as my friend: sometimes leaders have to do things they wouldn’t choose for themselves. They put the needs of their group ahead of their own personal desires. Like the son in the story, there are a lot of things I’m not sure I want to give up, and some things I’ve been reluctant to take up. But as a husband and father, my choices are not just my own anymore. Those titles come with responsibilities that can’t be turned on and off whenever it seems convenient for me. It’s a full package that requires total commitment.
I’ve resisted acknowledging that obligation for a long time because I was afraid of forcing my will upon my family. But I’m learning that isn’t what good leadership does. Being a leader is not about getting what you want for yourself. It’s about serving your group in the ways they need so that everyone can have the best shot at accomplishing the collective goals. To be the best leader for my family, I first have to be willing to accept that I am that leader. Resisting that idea simply because I don’t want to lead seems extremely selfish when I consider that it could be holding us all back from our potential.
The truth is that leadership begins by putting others ahead of personal wants.