How to Step into a Leadership Vacuum

by Andy Wood on September 11, 2012

in Five LV Laws, Following Your Passion, Leadership, Life Currency, LV Cycle, Principle of Increase

So somebody’s in charge, but nobody’s actually leading.  There’s a boss, but no vision caster.  You have an authority figure, but no one is harnessing the best efforts of the people in your organization.

In short, you have a leadership vacuum.  What do you do?


Lead a mutiny?

Facebook your friends and tell them what a loser you have as a leader?

Try to outmaneuver others politically and manipulate your way to power?

Sit and suffer and hope for the best, while your peers keep howling for leadership?

How about asking God to smite somebody while you’re at it?

These are all approaches used to face situations that have become almost cliché they’re so common:  What do I do when my leader isn’t leading?  Organizations everywhere – businesses, churches, nonprofits, and schools are decrying a lack of leadership.  Somebody needs to make the tough decisions, cast the difficult vision, harness the amazing abilities and energy of the people!  And we seem to be convinced that the answer to the search lies somewhere else.

Maybe it doesn’t.  Maybe the search for someone to step into the leadership ends with you.  Maybe you’re the leader the organization needs, even if people in executive suites don’t necessarily see it yet.  Maybe you’re the catalyst for change, even if you don’t have the sanctioned power to make it so.

A Warning

What follows is not for the faint-hearted or half-hearted.  If your rousing ambition is the status quo or a couple of extra vacation days for everybody, stay put with the mediocre majority.

Stepping into a leadership vacuum is like stepping onto a tightrope over a fire pit.  One wrong move and you could be toast.

So why bother?  Why take the risk of offending, becoming a target of jealous bosses, or making a fool of yourself?  Why not just let bored, incompetent sleeping dogs lie?

Because it’s wrong.  That’s why.  It’s wrong to have solutions and allow people to wallow in problems.  It’s wrong to see a need and pretend it doesn’t exist because the boss or company policy says it’s somebody else’s job.  It’s wrong to waste your talent and gifts because you were too afraid of criticism or rejection.

A Biblical Model

Ask most people about the beloved Bible character David, and you’ll either hear about David the giant killer or about David the King who later messed up badly but ended well. What you don’t hear much is about David the fugitive and refugee who spent a remarkable amount of time running from a jealous, insecure, impotent King named Saul.

It’s a pretty dismal and ugly scene.  But in those months between David’s anointing and his coronation, he showed future generations of leaders how to step into a leadership vacuum and live to tell about it.  Here are some suggestions you can apply to your leader(less) situations, inspired by David’s experiences.  You can read in more detail about all this in 1 Samuel 17-24.

1.  Nurture a passion for the cause or mission.

Know why David took a slingshot out to face Goliath?  Because he had a cause and the Philistine was defying it.  David’s lifetime pursuit was the glory of God and the victory of God’s people.  It was not to be king.

Ambition is a tricky thing.  If the only thing you’re ambitious for is your own position or power, your leadership will ultimately fail and somebody else will eventually take that power or position from you.  But if you always keep the big picture in mind – if you can remember why the organization exists in the first place and build your work around that mission – then you have the fuel to inspire and influence others toward the same thing.  And that, friend, is leadership, whether you have the title or not.

2.  Position yourself as a servant.

Whenever David talked about himself to others, he used the word, “I” just as you would.  But when he talked to King Saul, he always referred to himself as “your servant.”  This wasn’t for show.  David lived it.  He served Saul.  He played music for Saul.  He went to battle for Saul.  He even earned the right to marry Saul’s daughter through service.

In leaderless organizations, there is often a lack of servanthood as well.  People tend to retreat to their own responsibilities or their own worlds, wait for somebody to give some direction.  David’s experience has been repeated time and time again, inside and outside the world of religious things:  The one who serves first is often the one who leads last.  If you must step into a leadership vacuum, step in first as a servant.

3.  Differentiate yourself when the time is appropriate. 

David was on a food delivery mission for Jesse, his dad.  He was shocked at what he saw.  Here was this big-mouthed giant defying the armies of the living God, and nobody – not even the king – was willing to confront him.  So David stepped into the vacuum.  He did what no one else was willing to do.  He risked what no one else was willing to risk.  He believed what no one else was willing to believe.  And he did so confident that God would give him victory.

Just like David, when you step out to do that, somebody’s going to ask you who you think you are.  They’re going to try to fit you with somebody else’s armor or techniques.  But this is the time for you to be you.  Use your gifts, your abilities, your sense of what it takes to accomplish the mission.  But make absolutely sure that you’re confident of success.

4.  Honor those in authority, even when they are not leading honorably.

After the celebration of David’s victory began to subside, things got ugly.  Saul went nuts and David pretended to be.  Saul started attacking and David started running and hiding.  But as dishonorably as Saul acted, and as popular as David was, not once did he use that to usurp the king’s authority.  Never.  He had chances to kill Saul; he didn’t.  Throughout this time, even while fleeing from a madman, David continued to lead others to fight Israel’s and God’s enemies.

I know you may work for a complete jerk.  Insecure.  Jealous.  Mean.  Controlling.  And I don’t just mean pastors!  Some business or nonprofit leaders are like that, too!  The temptation is to find a way to usurp them, defy them, or use your “zeal for the mission” to undermine them.

Don’t.  That will ultimately backfire on you, one way or another.  Give honor to the position, even when the person holding it doesn’t deserve it.

5.  Give leadership (toward the mission) to those who come to you for leadership.

An interesting thing happened as David ran and hid.  “All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their leader. About four hundred men were with him” (1 Samuel 22:2).   The people who ultimately became David’s mighty men started out as people with problems.

What?  You thought leadership was about getting in front of the already-awesome? Think again.  Your leadership emerges from your ability to align your mission and vision to somebody else’s needs or problems.  And when you help them resolve their difficulties or mold them into who they’re capable of becoming, they will follow your influence – at least for a season.

6.  Be true to your person and passion, and let God determine your position.

In all the mayhem and never-ending adventure, David kept two things in mind.  He knew who he was.  And he knew who God was.  He knew when he felt weak and small or wounded and weary that God was “his refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).  He knew that God had called Israel to be a blessing to the whole world, and that Israel’s enemies were God’s enemies.

In all of that, David let God determine his position.  If God placed him in service as a shepherd, he was good with that.  If God called him out as a warrior-leader, he rose to the occasion.  If the Lord anointed him as king, he accepted that.  But he gave God time to establish that in the hearts and minds of others.  After Saul’s death, David was king only of Judah for seven years, until the remaining tribes of Israel united under his authority.

Just because the title holder isn’t leading doesn’t mean you can’t.  But stepping into the void requires a lot of humility, wisdom, and passion for the right things.  It takes the heart of a servant and sometimes the courage of a warrior.  But stepping into that leadership vacuum may define your mission and life’s calling for years to come.  If the cause is worthy enough, the risk and the work are nothing.  For God’s sake, Lead!

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