Who said that everything in this world evolves over time? Leaders do not naturally evolve into better leaders but a leader’s skills can certainly erode without purposely striving for continual improvement.

Do humans automatically mature in old age based on their life experiences? Absolutely not! Just being alive for many years does not make a person mature. Chronological aging occurs without any intervention on our part.  However, if we do not find and apply the principles of success and failure in life experience through constant introspection, we will not learn anything from experience. In other words, the best prevention against the erosion of leadership skills is constant self-improvement.

Sensing that the end of his life was approaching, Paul urged Timothy, the next generation leader he had painstakingly cultivated: “. . . train yourself to be godly” (I Tim. 4:7). The imperative verb “train” here means to “train yourself constantly and repeatedly.” What made Saul the persecutor one of the most prominent leaders in the New Testament world was not the “conversion on the road to Damascus” experience.  One-off events never produce exceptional leaders. Paul’s intentional and repetitive godly life made him an outstanding spiritual leader.  Excellence in leadership comes from consistently learning and applying leadership principles in day-to-day activities. Great leaders are created through long, painful processes, not one-off events.

John Maxwell describes this process this way: “Everything worthwhile is uphill.”  If you want to achieve excellence, you have to climb the mountain of self-discipline every day.  Mountaineering is a painful process. However, if you keep climbing the mountain, you will unknowingly develop strength and endurance, which makes the climb less and less painful. The steeper the mountain, the more proficient the professional mountaineer becomes. It’s a fight worth fighting. The pain of reaching the summit cannot compare to the joy of conquering the summit.  John Maxwell says, “Small disciplines repeated with consistency every day lead to great achievements gained slowly over time.”

I urge you, readers, in your 20s and 30s who want to be leaders of the next generation not to trust solely in your God-given skills and natural talents to make you an excellent leader.  Practice every day Paul’s extraordinary exhortation to Timothy, who was already an outstanding leader. If you train yourself to be godly every day, by the time you reach your 50s, you will be outstanding leaders of your generation.

Today’s culture tells us that to be an exceptional leader, you need extraordinary charisma, extraordinary creativity, and the ability to network endlessly. These are essential qualities for a leader. But the undisputable quality that makes you an exceptional leader is a conscientious effort to develop yourself every day.

A farmer can’t expect a harvest from an occasional trip to the field. Only the steady and diligent efforts of farmers throughout spring and summer can ensure the autumn harvest. Thanksgiving initially came about when Pilgrims were thanking the Lord for the bountiful harvest He gave them with the help of Native Americans. The Lord always gives abundantly. But this abundance is often directly proportional to the farmer’s hard work.

A poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which I read in my mid-20s, comes to mind.

If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things to govern your soul and your senses, for fear that your passions and longings may lead you away from the path you should follow.  Chaste be your mind and your body, and both in subjection, obediently, steadfastly seeking the aim set before them; only through discipline may a man learn to be free.

You can’t give others what you don’t have. A leader who doesn’t grow will never grow others.