When I hear the word leader, I remember being a child and hearing my mom tell me, “Don’t be a follower, Hanna. Be a leader.” I didn’t fully understand that until I was probably in my 20s. I didn’t have many friends at school when I was a kid and got picked on for various reasons by the “cooler” girls at school. It wasn’t always me that was picked on – it seemed to rotate between about four of us other girls. One day, we would be included in the group and the next, we would be the target of mean, insulting notes passed back and forth during our 5th period class.
I also remember the 7th grade Valentine’s Dance. My uncle’s new wife had a daughter who was always in beauty pageants, so they had all kinds of pretty dresses and she let me pick one to wear. She also did my hair and make-up for me. I felt so beautiful in that white lace dress with my eye shadow done just right and fresh black mascara. Not only that, but I was also wearing a beautiful necklace and earrings! Surely, I would be among some of the prettiest girls at the dance. I walked into the school gym feeling like I was literally glowing. Then, they spotted me. My friends, who I thought would compliment me on my dress, all turned and started giggling with each other. It didn’t take long for me to realize I was dressed completely different from them. There they were all dressed the same in short black and red cocktail style dresses with black heels and pantyhose. And here I was in a long white lace dress.”This is a dance, Hanna, not a wedding!” they mocked. “I can’t believe she’s wearing that,” they muttered to each other. And since I was 12 years old, I didn’t drive or have another way to get home. I had to remain at the dance being laughed at for three hours, by myself, no dancing, no fun. I had never, and have never since, felt so small.
For a long time, this event – the logic behind this event – caused me to not ever want to be different from others. I learned that I needed to dress the same, talk the same, listen to the same music, and just all around be the same. I had ignored my mother’s advice for a long time and had inadvertently become a follower – the same as everyone else. My experience had taught me that if I was different, I would be mocked and laughed at and ridiculed. That was not a way I wanted to live my life.
During my first few teenage years I would float from stereotype to stereotype. I had no idea who I was or who I wanted to be, so I figured I’d try it all. Beginning with the stoners in 8th grade, I found myself hiding out behind a random building in the alley with a group of kids – all of us smoking cigarettes. I was 13 years old. After that, I decided to try out the skaters’ group. That meant buying myself some Lee Pipes jeans, 8-ball t-shirts, and Vans shoes. Upon changing schools (and living situations), I needed to find a new group of friends, so I switched over to the junior gangster side. Clothes really weren’t a big difference here for girls, so I didn’t need to change much in that area; however, my shirt and shorts got shorter. My slang changed a bit and I could feel a bit of an accent forming in the way I spoke. I became more “ruthless” in my response to people who weren’t found worthy of our friend group. I wanted to be a thug and eventually thought I was. That thug manifested itself in me when I started picking on a boy at a party and throwing empty beer bottles at his head until he got up and left, chased out by my friends and later beaten. I was 15 years old.
This list could go on further, but I think the point is clear. None of those people were who I really was, but at least I had figured out how to fit in, kind of. The truth is I never really did fit in on the inside. I had no idea who I was so I didn’t know how to be myself. As I grew older, I began to get glimpses of myself and eventually started accepting that person and attempting to walk with her.
As I slipped into church life about six months after my first encounter with the Father, I began to truly walk in who I was – inside and out. It was great! I loved being me. Finally, I was walking in freedom – at least, I thought I was. A couple of years later, my uncertainty and lack of self-esteem started creeping in and I projected that outward. The enemy inside would tell me that I didn’t fit in, but that I should. He told me that people didn’t really like me and that I didn’t make enough money to be included in a group of friends. These were all mindsets that needed to be broken, and by the grace of God (and with a little counseling), they were broken. Then, I realized I was being called to be a leader.
So, here we are at our point. I could not be a leader until I figured out who I am and began to walk fully in it. The truth is I don’t fit in but even further, I was never supposed to fit in. If a leader doesn’t stand out, how can he or she lead?
My favorite movie that paints a picture of leadership is Ender’s Game. In the movie, Ender Wiggin is chosen by the international military to lead the fight against an alien race. The Colonel sees the leader in Ender and tells him that but he doesn’t tell the rest of the recruits. Ender has a difficult time seeing it in himself. He has to learn how to walk in it without others recognizing it in him first. Eventually, he does learn and begins to very successfully lead his own army.
Another thing I’ve learned about being a leader is that you have to learn how to take the backseat first – even when you’re born for the front. You know, the old adage learning to crawl before you walk; walk before you run; run before you fly. We’re all in process, and learning to lead well is a process. The Father speaks into us who we are and it’s true at the very moment He speaks it. However, He will not let us live in that role until we learn to be humble, love others, and follow other good leaders well. Jesus Himself even grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52).
So, find out who you are and be that person. Don’t follow trends or language or anything else just because it’s popular right now. All of those things fade. Even popular words and language – notice the trendy words like dominate and epic – they change also. Don’t bother yourself with fashion just to fit in. Be yourself, at all costs. Do the right thing, when people are watching and when they’re not, even if it’s not the norm. Stand apart even if you have to stand alone. Do all of this in humility, never letting pride or arrogance creep in to tell you that you’re better. And don’t let whether or not you are on payroll determine if you are a leader in your own mind. Holding a leadership position is not the same as being a leader.