Building better leaders: How Doers become leaders

Building Better Leaders is a three-part series of articles from Dr. Andrew Johnston, in which he shares strategic principles of effective leadership based on Biblical principles. In this first article, Dr. Johnston describes a crucial difference between doers and leaders and equips leaders to empower their teams.

The Difference between great doers and great leaders


If you’re a “leader” now, I’ll bet you were a great “doer” in the past. Your inclination to take charge and get busy distinguished you from the other doers and won you the opportunity to lead. Unfortunately, the same do-it-yourself attitude that made you a great doer can make you a lousy leader, because leaders and doers have very different perspectives on power and what to do with it.

Great doers are distinguished by their direct achievements, their ability to personally take the ball and run. They focus directly on the outcomes, amass their own power, roll up their sleeves and get busy. Great leaders are distinguished by their indirect achievements, their ability to give the ball to someone else and then help them run well. Simply put, doers focus on the outcome and work to wield power themselves. Leaders focus on the people and build others' abilities and inclinations to use them well.

Leaders who miss this distinction often wind up confusing and competing with the people they lead. They inadvertently steal power from them and create dependencies instead of opportunities. They often become the limiters of their team’s talents and capacity. Alternatively, leaders, who reframe their perspective on power and rework the habits they learned as doers, create potent, independent contributors and teams that transcend the sum of their parts. Here are three counterintuitive tips that will help you shift from a doer to a leader and power up your people.

Leaders focus on the people and build others’ abilities and inclinations to use them well.

stop doing what needs to be done

When you were a doer, and you went the extra mile or stayed after hours, you might not have enjoyed it at the moment, but you felt a certain satisfaction in the accomplishment. It felt good to be the hero and demonstrate your commitment to the cause. In time, some of these sacrifices became your badges of honor. Now, when these moments arise, try to remember they are your team members' moments, not yours. It's their opportunity to shine. If you dive in and do too much to deliver results yourself, you're usually taking that opportunity away from someone else. Your team will quickly feel unnecessary, confused, frustrated, or demeaned. You mean well, but the problem isn't your aspirations, it's your inability to trust others with the responsibility of achieving them. It often takes more courage to direct others than to do things yourself, but ask them to step up before you do, if you want to make sure they feel empowered.

STOP answering questions

When you are a doer, your ability to deliver answers is the source of your credibility, the measure of your effectiveness, and likely your ticket to the “big time.” However, when you’re a leader, your success doesn't depend on how much you know as much as on how much your people know. You need them to provide answers, and they tend not to do this if you’re busily doing it yourself. Your people adjust their behavior to yours, so if you are too full of answers, you will eventually discover that they are also full of questions.

They will increasingly pass the critical choices on to you and wait for your direction. This slows everything down and shifts the power unproductively away from the ones who need to be exercising it most. In short order, you will feel like your team only moves when you do. Stop answering questions and start asking them instead. Questions have a unique way of drawing people into more significant engagement. That’s one of the reasons Jesus asked his disciples so many of them and answered so many questions with questions of his own. When he asked things like, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29), “Why do you ask me about what is good?” (Matt 19:16), or “Why do you not judge for yourself what is right?” (Luke 12:57) He caused the disciples to lean in and determine the truth for themselves. Of course, resisting the urge to give answers doesn't mean you should stop offering feedback or guidance altogether. (Being clueless and disengaged isn't a great strategy for leaders or doers.) Follow Jesus’ lead. Tailor your communication to prompt and shape others' consideration and give the kind of assistance that empowers them to find answers themselves.

As a leader, you are most vulnerable when you lean on your sufficiency, and you grow stronger only when you give your power away.

Risk more on other people's work


When you are a doer, your own work represents you for better or for worse, but when you’re a leader, your credibility rests on someone else's work. You rise and fall on the choices they make. If you’re uncomfortable with this, it's tempting to protect yourself by limiting the power of your team. You might hedge your bets and delegate only the choices that will have little impact or create a situation where the team is merely an extension of your imagination, judgment, and preferences. These tactics might make you feel more in control, but control is overrated; it limits even more than it protects. In the end, such tactics take power away from the people who need it most.

As a general rule, if you feel safe and are confident that your people can't harm anything, you probably haven’t given them enough power. Take the risk; entrust them with essential things. Ease your discomfort by shaping the values and goals that guide their use of power instead of by limiting their access to it altogether. Again, Jesus models this strategy by calling us to play a vital role in His plan for redemption. As our creator, He knows our insufficiencies and still commissioned us to take His Gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth (Matthew 28). He provides us power in the form of His own spirit (John 14) and guides us as we make important choices and commitments along the way. 

As you lead in your business, in your home, or your local church, the shift from doer to leader can be difficult because it feels like you are giving power away. You are, but this doesn’t make you weak. It’s a paradox that confounds any doer sensibilities you have, but it also reflects the leadership style of the One who reminds us His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). As a leader, you are most vulnerable when you lean on your sufficiency, and you grow stronger only when you give your power away.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” —2 Corinthians 12:9a ESV

Andrew Johnston, Ed.D., serves as Director of Development for The Gideons International.

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