The Dangerous Cornice of Trying to Be the “Best” Leader | Just Strive to “Excel” or Be a “Good” Leader… (#3 In a Seven Part Series: Seven Things Successful Leaders Do Differently.)
Successful leaders know that creativity and peace are poisoned by the pursuit of perfection. Seeking to be the “best” at something is like walking out onto a deceiving cornice that won’t hold you. Walk out on that thing just a little further—keep trying to be “better than everyone else”, and you are going down. The game of trying to be the “best” is like my friend Edy Sutherland describes dirt biking: “It’s not a matter of when you are going down, but when and how hard.” Truly successful leaders stay on the realistic and solid ridge of striving to be a “good” leader, not the “best” leader. If you can give up your aspirations for “best” and embrace the realistic possibility of just being “good”, you’ll reach summit after summit in every season of leadership.
I want to share a personal story that illustrates the painful way I learned that being a successful leader means striving to be “good” at something, not the “best.”
I was so passionate about wilderness ministry; I could hardly contain my excitement. I had completed my first two summers guiding at Wilderness Ranch, and was now an area director for Young Life in the Denver area. Those two summers at WR had been the most transforming 6 months of my life… I had seen hundreds of kids and volunteer leaders radically changed by encountering their Father in the wilderness. I was sensing a call on my life to do everything I could do to give every young person an opportunity to meet Jesus and grow in their faith through guided wilderness adventures. I was stoked.
Young Man’s Disease
I almost couldn’t contain the flow of ideas I had for how to progress in my wilderness leadership skills. Being young and a little arrogant (my friend Kevin Wolfe calls this young man’s disease), I thought I could really “improve” some of Wilderness Ranch’s guide training. My good friend and mentor, Skeet Tingle, graciously invited me to do some of the teaching at our annual “Counseling & Content” weekend, and I jumped at the opportunity. I spent hours pouring over ideas for modeling experiential learning in the wilderness and came up with about 8-10 sessions that I would teach.
A Lesson I Will Never Forget
The training weekend finally arrived. I can’t remember much about the actual content I taught, but there is one lesson that has never left me. In all of my zeal and passion for wilderness ministry, I subtly and unconsciously had made a “vow” in my heart that I was going to be the “best” wilderness ministry trainer I could be. I think my intentions were probably good, but I was too young and inexperienced to see the trap of seeking to be the “best.” The story of my training weekend didn’t end well. I was so amped from all the preparation and teaching, that halfway through the training I broke down. I went outside for a break and began to weep… feeling totally overwhelmed and exhausted from all the effort I was putting into things. By the grace of God I made it through the weekend, but after the last session, a wise older friend, Scott Dolenc said four words to me that have stuck with me ever since: “That was too much.” It stung to hear those words, but I knew he was right, and the Lord has used that experience ever since to remind me to be wary of the trap of trying to be the “best”.
Strive to be “Good” not “Best”
I believe the biblical approach to leadership is to always to strive to be a “good” at something, but not to get wrapped up in trying to be the “best.” The truth is there is always someone “better” than you, and it’s a waste of valuable energy and heart to aim at trying to be the best. The Fossil Apostle Paul wasn’t afraid to spray (i.e. highlight his achievements), but even he didn’t dwell on past accomplishments… he was moving forward:
Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead… -Philippians 3:13
Give Yourself a Break Today
This principle is true for fatherhood, marriage, leadership, whatever. If you really want to bless those you are leading, just aim at being a good leader. If you want to bless your spouse over the long haul, don’t try to be the “best”, just be a good husband or bride. This takes the stress off and enables you to walk in grace when you fail. If you want to bless your kids, don’t get caught up in trying to be the “best” dad or mom. Just be a good dad or a good mom, and your kids will be even more blessed because they won’t have a neurotic parent.
Take a Chill Pill | Seek to Get Better Not the Best
So if you are an aspiring leader, just relax and be yourself. Joyfully continue to get better at what you do, but don’t get caught in the trap of trying to be the best. You never will be. The pride-busting truth is that there is always someone better than you in any given area of leadership, and that’s a good thing. So focus on making heroes of others, be good at what you do, always seek to improve, but give up trying to be the best… it’s a deceiving cornice that won’t hold you.
- Honestly ask yourself, “am I trying to be the best at something?” How does this make me stressed and take away the joy of serving others?
- Look at your areas of responsibility (leading others, being a father, mother, or spouse), and write down 2-3 simple steps you can take this week to be a “good” leader, father, spouse, etc. Start small.
- Outdoor leadership application: Write a paragraph in your own words entitled, “What does it look like to be a good outdoor leader (use your imagination).?” Now write another paragraph entitled, “What I need to do to become the “best” outdoor leader ever.” Was that a deflating exercise? Point made.
- Please post a comment below!