September 2012

Everything worthwhile is uphill. I’ve been saying this for a while now, but the more I think about it, the more I know it’s true. Whether you’re talking about personal growth, personal health, business or some other aspect of life, nothing of value is easy. The precious things in life require something in exchange.

It reminds me of a quote from missionary Jim Elliott: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Leaders are well aware of the need to sacrifice. The decisions leaders face almost always include some measure of giving up something in order to gain something; for leaders, life is always a set of scales that need balancing. One of the easiest places to see this principle at work is parenting. Whether it’s a good night’s sleep, a weekend getaway, or your dream car, as a parent you understand that sacrifices must be made for your children.

But it’s not just parents who have to make sacrifices. As leaders in businesses and organizations, we are called to make tough choices on behalf of our people. Sometimes the sacrifices are obvious and simple. You let go of a little money to gain a better product. You promote a fantastic worker because they’ll make an even better leader. You release a great employee to go and chase their dream.

Sometimes the sacrifices are harder and more draining. You have to cut the budget in order to keep the company afloat. You have to admit your organization made a mistake in production. Or, even harder, you have to admit that you made a bad choice as a leader and cost the company millions.

Regardless of the type of sacrifice, every leader must be willing to make sacrifices, because leaders are expected to pay the prices others won’t pay. That’s what makes you the leader! But it’s not just about making the hard decisions—good leaders make the hard decisions when they need to be made. Being able to face the moment of decision and choose the hard path of sacrifice in that moment defines the greatest leaders in history. 

I challenge you, in your growth as a leader, to be willing to face – and even embrace – sacrifice when it is called for, to help your people and organization thrive. I’ve often said that we have to “give up to go up.” I believe that no matter how challenging the sacrifice, you will end up understanding that it was worth it to take your leadership to the next level.

I have a second challenge for you: In your life, you can probably think of several people who made the right sacrifices at the appropriate times to help you become the person you are today: parents, teachers, friends, family. I encourage you to take time this week to thank those people for the sacrifices they made on your behalf. I believe that so much of our success in life comes from standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. The people who made important tradeoffs contributed to who you are. Thank them today.

Finally, I have one more challenge, and it is the main reason why I chose today to write about sacrifice. This weekend, America will celebrate Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember the men and women who gave their lives while serving in our armed forces. It is a day that dates as far back as 1866, when the citizens of Waterloo, New York, gathered together to honor their sons and daughters who had died in the Civil War. The US holiday became official in 1966, and for the last fifty years this weekend has been part of our national mindset.

I am grateful for all of the men and women who gave their lives in service to our country. As a leader, I find their willingness to give themselves to the cause of freedom inspirational, and I agree with President Lincoln, who said it best: “From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Sacrifice is at the heart of leadership, and the men and women we will honor on Memorial Day were leaders in the best sense. Whether they sacrificed on the field of battle or in some other way, who we are as a nation is the result of their willingness to give when it was needed. So it is my privilege to honor those men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. To their families, I give my thanks—and I encourage you to do the same.

Have you ever felt like you were out of place? That where you are, isn’t where you’re supposed to be?

I was talking with someone the other day, and he made a statement that really connected with me. He’s got a successful and fulfilling career. But that day he confessed that lately he’d had the sense that something was missing. He said to me, “I just feel like there’s something more for me to do. Not exactly that I’m meant for more, but like I’ve got more to give.” Then he asked, “How do I know when it’s time for me to move on?”

That’s such an important question. Looking back over my four decades of leadership, I can see that my sense of having more to give played a key role in many of my career choices. Every career transition was triggered by a desire to give more. And the new position that followed definitely offered the opportunity to grow and expand my impact.

But – and this is a big but – not every impulse to give more, or do more, or be more, was followed by a career transition. Many times, what followed instead was a passion for increased impact where I already was. How did I know when to stay, and when to move on?

I believe that one question can be answered by asking yourself a few others. Questions that force you to look inward. After all, if what you’re feeling is that you don’t fit your current role, then the first step is to examine yourself, not the role. That’s what I told my friend. And if you’re in a similar situation, that’s what I want to share with you. Here are the four questions I encouraged my friend to answer:

1. Am I Currently Exceeding Expectations?

This may seem like a strange question to start with, but it’s actually the most crucial. Before you start looking for other places to give more, make sure you’re more than meeting the standard where you’re at! If you are already consistently exceeding expectations as an employee and/or leader, then you might need to look for other opportunities to contribute. But that leads to the next question:

2. Am I Giving 100% OF MY Effort?

You’re probably thinking, John, if I’m exceeding expectations, then I’m definitely giving 100% effort! You might think so, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s possible to give less than our best and still exceed the expectations placed on us by our positions.

Resist the coaster’s mentality—that’s when you settle for less than your best simply because it’s better than what’s expected! If you’re not giving your 100% to where you are, then chances are that you would transfer that same attitude to a new position. Find a way to re-engage with your position and challenge yourself to be completely focused on giving your best work.

3. Am I Seeing and Seizing Growth Opportunities?

You may not realize it, but growth opportunities exist all around you. It’s easy to see your current discontentment as a sign that you need to leave. But in reality, it might be a sign that you need to level up. Don’t let your restlessness blind you to the opportunities to grow that may be present right where you are. Search hard for them, and don’t move on until you’re certain that you’ve made the most of every opportunity.

4. Am I Currently Mentoring Others?

As I wrote in a recent blog post, whenever you leave a position, you take your influence, vision and momentum with you—unless you’ve spent time developing someone to take your place. The mentoring question is the last question to ask, because doing so always leaves things better than they were when you arrived. Plus, if you’re not giving to the people who are already in your life, then you’re not prepared to give to those you haven’t met!

The theme for all four of these questions is to be all that you can be where you are. Grow and give until you’ve filled the space that you’re in. When you know you’ve done that, it might be time to move on. But that brings up the number one question that I always ask myself, which comes out of my personal faith. It is, for me, the most important question I ask before making any kind of transition or change. And that question is, Is this what God would have me do? For me, everything I do is rooted in my relationship with God. So it’s only natural that I seek His guidance—after all, He understands what’s best for me even better than I do!

No matter where you are now, if you’re committed to growth, you will eventually feel like you have more to give than your current situation allows. And the good news is, there are always places for people who are pushing the limits of their potential. But before you make any big decisions, ask yourself these four questions. They might reveal more for you to do where you are. You’ll never regret taking stock before you take flight—no matter which direction you choose to soar.

Last week I wrote in The Limits of a One-Man Show that a leader who doesn’t share his or her vision, influence, and momentum with others will see all three diminish over time. I learned that lesson at Hillham, and it’s one I’ve never forgotten. It is absolutely essential for any leader to find capable women and men to mentor and invest in for the future!

But that raised an important question in several comments on the post: how do you know whom to invest in as a leader? So I decided to set aside my original topic for today and answer the question in this post.

In my book Developing the Leaders Around You, I devote an entire chapter to identifying potential leaders to develop. To me, this is the primary responsibility of any leader, and it’s also one of the most challenging tasks leaders face. It’s crucial to get it right.

So what should you look for when you’re recruiting people to your side? Here are the five key areas I believe you should focus on:

1. Character

Without a doubt, the first thing you should look for in others in character. Strength of character is the foundation of all leadership; if a person’s character is flawed, their leadership will be as well.

While there are many excellent character qualities to look for, there is one that stands above all others: integrity. And I ask three easy questions to help assess a person’s integrity:

Do they take responsibility for both their successes and their failures?

Do they fulfill their promises and obligations?

Do they meet their deadlines consistently?

Besides answering these questions in a work or volunteer environment, you can tell much about people’s character from how well they manage their personal lives and primary relationships. How would the people closest to them answer the questions above? Taking the time to get to know some of the key people around a person is a great way to learn about the person him- or herself.

2. Positive Attitude

After character, one of the most valuable assets anyone can possess is a good attitude. In fact, a person with a positive mindset can rightfully be called a no-limits person. This person isn’t willing to stop when discouraged, or turn back when things get tough. The person with a positive attitude keeps looking for a way forward because they believe that way exists!

People with positive attitudes do things others can’t, see things others won’t, and go places others don’t go. Their willingness to see potential even in the most challenging circumstances sets the tone for everyone around them, and that makes them exceptional people to spend time with and develop.

3. Self-Discipline

We often take for granted that people are self-disciplined—especially if we are disciplined ourselves! But the truth is that doing the things that need to be done, when they need to be done, isn’t something everyone embraces. There is a limited number of people willing to pay the price to chase what could be.

The quickest way to determine if a person is self-disciplined is to look at two key areas: their emotions and their time. Self-disciplined people don’t allow the emotions of others to overwhelm them; in a volatile moment, they can keep a cool head. Self-disciplined people likewise don’t allow the urgency or distractions of the moment to command their attention. They know how to focus on what truly matters. If you can find someone in control of their emotions and their time, chances are you’ve found a person with great self-discipline.

4. People Skills

To be a leader, by definition, you have to work with other people—and that’s where people skills come in. When looking for people to raise up as leaders, you should always look for those who have an ability to understand others, and who make positive interactions with others a primary goal. How we behave toward others determines how they will behave toward us.

Besides valuing people in general and treating them well, another key component of good people skills is the ability to communicate well. You want potential leaders who can express themselves in a way that wins people to their cause. Good communicators desire to truly communicate, not impress, so they work hard to make their message clear. They also focus on the listener, making good eye contact and smiling to show engagement. And good communicators also have the ability to connect with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations—which makes working with others much easier!

5. Discontent with the Status Quo

If you’re looking to develop someone to carry on your vision, you need to select someone with vision of their own. This doesn’t mean their vision is more important than yours, or that they should argue with you about what’s right, but they should appreciate the value of vision. You want someone who isn’t content to accept things as they are; they should be someone who wants to break new ground.

Don’t get me wrong—you need someone who is willing to work with you. You don’t want someone who grumbles or has a negative attitude about everything. What I’m talking about is more of a willingness to be different and take risks. You want people who are willing to change and grow—and push you to do the same. Leaders who become satisfied with with the status quo very quickly become followers.


I keep a constant eye out for potential leaders no matter where I go, and I encourage you to do the same. Look for men and women with a good attitude who genuinely like others and want to help make their community a better place. Look for people who have the character and discipline to follow through on their word. I promise you, they are out there.

But once you discover them, don’t stop there! Have a cup of coffee with them, or spend some time getting to know them. You can’t develop leaders if you’re not willing to invest your time and effort. At first, this might feel like you’re sacrificing “work” time for something lower-priority, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The time you invest in developing other leaders will multiply your efforts. Together, you’ll be able to achieve much more than you could ever do alone. 

Whether you’re a one-man show looking to expand or an established leader looking to break through to the next level, the truth is you can’t achieve your best without a team to help you. Good leaders deliberately seek out and find potential leaders. Great leaders not only find them; they help them become great leaders in their own right.