For as long as I can remember I have had a passion for jumping. As a child, I climbed every tree in sight. In middle school I gravitated to sports that involved jumping. Throughout high school I played basketball for my school. To the surprise of my coach and teammates, I dunked a ball in a game for the first time in the 9th grade. Even now, whenever I touch a ball I have a strange and bring desire to jump.
When basketball wasn’t in season, I competed on a track team and had the privilege of being coached by two different men who had coached athletes to Olympic medals. One of those coaches was a man named Richard Borek, and he taught me a lesson I will never forget. Often as the team would be engaged in pre-workout stretches, Coach Borek would ask us a simple question. “Who wins the competition?” The answer was drilled into us virtually every practice, “It isn’t the person who wants it the most, it is the person works the hardest.” Each and every workout, coach Borek taught me and many others, that success wasn’t about winning, but achieving our best. He taught us that success was earned and not given. Reaching our potential wasn’t about natural ability but about a disciplined work ethic.
Growing up outside of Toronto, Canada, this truth was powerfully illustrated for me at the OFSSA Championships in June of 1994. OFSSA stands for Ontario Federation of Secondary School Athletics, and I had qualified for my first provincial championship. At that competition I met Mark Boswell for the first time. Mark was the reigning High School Champion for the province of Ontario. He was about 6’5 and was the best high jumper in the province. Long, lanky and springy, he was born with the perfect body for the sport. Mark was far more athletic than anyone I had ever met. However, his coach told me he hardly practiced, and as he jumped it was clear he hadn’t really given the sport much effort. He won the competition that day, but only jumped an inch higher than I did, in spite of the fact that he was several inches taller and far more athletic. While he beat me that day, it was a close competition. I remember thinking it was a shame that he didn’t train harder, because he could be really good.
A couple of years later, Mark represented Canada at the World Junior Championships and won the gold medal, jumping a full foot higher than he had against me in high school. He went on to compete twice in the Olympics Games and World Championships numerous times, placing as high as second in the entire world. He was one of the top 5 jumpers in the world for over a decade.
What was the difference between the Mark that barely beat me in 1993 and the world class Mark a few years later?
He began to listen to his coach. He set his heart to excelling at the sport. He studied, practiced and disciplined himself on a daily basis. One coach told me he engaged in an intense routine of over 200 plyometrics and drills each practice. He took his natural ability and turned himself into an elite athlete.
It doesn’t matter how talented, charismatic or innovative you are in your field, without discipline, you will never achieve greatness. This is true in all walks of life, and yet it is especially true in the area of leadership. Leading well is really hard work. Great leaders are disciplined in their pursuit of excellence.
We see this same measure of disciplined intensity in the life of Ezra. As we learned in our last post, Ezra had dedicated himself as a scribe in his early days and had become renowned for his skillful understanding and use of the Law of Moses (Ezra 7:6). One can assume however, that there were many young scribes seeking the fame and fortune associated with practicing their craft in the courts of the Persian king. What set Ezra apart?
In Ezra 7:9 we learn, “the good hand of his God was on him.” In fact, this phrase in one form or another is used six times in the book of Ezra to describe the impact and leadership accomplishments of this young jewish scribe in the courts of the king. He achieves much as a result of God’s hand being upon him. The natural question is this; out of all the scribes in the empire, why did God choose to rest his hand on Ezra? We find out in the very next verse. It says, “the good hand of his God was on him. For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:9-10, emphasis mine). Ezra lived a disciplined life in pursuit of God’s way. The result was that God’s hand was on him every step of the way.
The Disciplines of Ezra: This passage shows us 4 specific disciplines Ezra engaged in that resulted in his closeness with God. I believe these disciplines are not reserved for a few special people. They are accessible to every one of us and will produce a similar result if we discipline ourselves as Ezra did.
- The Discipline of Intention – He Set His Heart On God’s Word
- The Discipline of Study – He Studied God’s Word
- The Discipline of Obedience – He Followed Gods Word
- The Discipline of Discipleship – He Taught Others God’s Word
The Discipline of Intention – Dictionary.com defines intention as “determining mentally upon some action or result.” Alone, this discipline is useless. We all know countless people who make New Year’s resolutions and by February can’t remember what those resolutions were. However, without intention, we will never get anywhere in life. Before we can hope to lead or accomplish anything of significance, we must set our hearts to do it. Luke 9:51 tells us that this discipline was embraced by Jesus, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (ESV). As the painful reality of the cross drew closer, Jesus had to be intentional about his state of mind. Another translation puts it this way, “He was determined to go to Jerusalem” (NASB). When the task before us is ominous, we must be resolute in our intention to accomplish whatever it may be.
The Discipline of Study – Mark Boswell would have never have become an elite athlete with out the disciplined life of becoming a student of the sport. Before he could achieve greatness, he had to listen to his coach, study his habits and reflect on the mechanics of the high jump. Ezra would never have been skilled enough in the Law of Moses to gain royal attention if he hadn’t paired his intention with disciplined study. Likewise, any leader seeking to be great, must study the not only the area within which they work, but also the craft of leadership itself. We will only ever be as good as the extent to which we are willing to humbly reflect on our actual abilities and learn how to improve. While this sounds obvious, many leaders are deceive themselves into thinking they do not need to reflect and grow. Hubris is the great inhibitor of the growth necessary to be the best we can possibly be. And finally, in addition to skill and leadership reflection, a great leader should also study God’s word, as it is the ultimate source of truth and wisdom. On countless occasions, my discipline of reading the Word of God each morning, has revealed timely wisdom and insight that applied directly to challenges, obstacles and difficulties I was facing at that moment. Great leaders continually study.
The Discipline of Obedience – Titus 3:1 speaks to the need to practice obedience when it says “be submissive to rulers and authorities… Be obedient…” However, there is very little written on the topic of obediently following. On a quick stroll down the aisles at any local bookstore, anyone can find literally hundreds of books on the topic of leadership. However, every leader is actually following someone or something else. None of us are truly independent, devoid of following. Barbara Kellerman wrote an incredible book on this topic called Followership, published by the Harvard Business Review. In this seminal work on the issue, she postulates that in a culture of leadership frenzy, it is critical to understand that the leadership-centric approach to organizations is actually far less effective that what can happen when every member of the organization understands how to follow well. Everyone should be empowered and held accountable to both follow and influence effectively. The CEO of the company, while setting the trajectory of the company, must follow and obey the direction of the companies board, as well as hundreds of governmental regulations. Failure to do so will result in catastrophic consequences as numerous recent CEO’s have shown in high profile falls from grace. Another great book on the subject of following, from a Christian perspective, is Following Jesus, by N.T. Wright. In this book Wright guides us through what each book of the New Testament teaches us about Jesus and how we can follow accordingly. Everyone who aspires to greatness in leadership must learn how to follow and obey both God’s word, and that direction of boss and other authorities if we are to achieve the greatness that we desire.
The Discipline of Discipleship – Leaders are only as good and valuable as their ability to develop those around them. A great leader that isn’t mentoring and developing the next generation of leaders is a travesty, and they are severely limited in scope of impact. One of the critical things that Ezra did, which seems to have earned him favor in the eyes of God, is that he took the knowledge and skills he had developed, and he used it to help others live in line with God’s plan. This foreshadows the final commands Jesus left us with before leaving earth. “And Jesus came and said to them, “ All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus’ last words were imploring those who followed him to go and disciple others. He asked us in those verses to disciple and teach people from all nations what He has taught us. The pinnacle of leadership is discipleship. To to be able to help others do what we are able to do. Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Whether you lead in an business, a school or a church, make sure you are mentoring many to be learning and leading as you are. This discipline ensures that we are aligned with God’s plan for our lives and increases our influence in the ives of those we lead.
Through these four disciplines, the hand of God rested on Ezra and all he did. My prayer for us is that we would engage these disciplines with a similar fervency to that of Ezra and that we too would find the hand and favor of God resting upon our lives and our leadership.
What areas of your life and leadership need more intentional discipline? Great leaders choose to be ridiculously disciplined.