Defining Moments Define Your Leadership

By Dr John C. Maxwell

One of the leaders I admire most is Winston Churchill, England’s prime minister who stood up against the Nazis during World War II. He was a leader’s leader! He once remarked, “In every age there comes a time when a leader must come forward to meet the needs of the hour. Therefore, there is no potential leader who does not have an opportunity to make a positive difference in society. Tragically, there are times when a leader does not rise to the hour.”
What determines whether a leader emerges to meet the challenge of the hour? More to the point, what will determine whether you will step for­ward to successfully meet the challenges you face? I believe the determin­ing factor is how you handle certain critical moments in your life. These moments will define who you are as a person and as a leader.

How Will You Be Defined?

If you are familiar with my philosophy of leadership and my teaching on success, then you know that I’m a big believer in personal growth. I don’t believe in overnight successes. In fact, one of my core principles is the Law of Process in my book The 21 Irrefutable Law of Leadership. It states, “Leader­ship develops daily, not in a day However, I also believe that the choices we make in critical moments help to form us and to inform others about who we are. They are defining moments, and here’s why I think they are important:

1. Defining Moments Show Us Who We Really Are
Most days in our lives come and go; they are much like all the others and don’t stand out. But there are a few days that are unlike all the others. They do stand out because they give us an opportunity to stand up, be set apart from the rest of the crowd, and seize that moment—or to remain sitting with the rest of the crowd and let it pass. These moments—for better or worse—define us. They show us what we are really made of.

We often focus on the milestones of life, the important events that mark seasons and accomplishments. We happily anticipate a graduation, wedding, or promotion. But some of our defining moments come as a total surprise, often appearing during times of crisis:

• Facing a personal failure
• Taking a stand on an issue
• Experiencing suffering
• Being asked to forgive
• Making an unpleasant choice

Sometimes we can sense the importance of our actions in the moment. We can see two clear paths ahead of us, one leading up, the other down. Other times, sadly, our defining moments occur and we don’t see them for what they are. Only afterward, when time has passed and we look back, do we understand their importance. Either way, they define who we are.

2. Defining Moments Declare to Others Who We Are
Most days we can wear masks and hide who we are from the people around us. During defining moments, we can’t do that. Our résumés mean nothing. It doesn’t matter how we have marketed ourselves. Our image means nothing. Defining moments put the spotlight on us. We have no time to put a spin on our actions. Whatever is truly inside us is revealed to everyone. Our character isn’t made during these times—it is displayed!

For leaders, defining moments tell the people following them many of the thing they really want to know: who their leaders are, what they stand for, and why they are leading. Handled well a defining moment can cement a relationship and bond leaders and followers for life. Handled poorly, a defining moment can cost a leader his credibility and end his ability to lead.

In the revised tenth anniversary edition of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, I wrote about two defining moments in the leader­ship of President George W Bush. His first term in office was defined by his response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. He con­nected with the hearts of the American people, and even people who hadn’t voted for him were willing to give his leadership a chance. However, his second term of office was defined by his poor response to Katrina. It took only a few days for the people of the United States to feel the leadership vacuum—and even for many of the president’s supporters to disapprove of his leadership.
My intention is not to be critical. All of us have experienced failure. My point is that the defining moments of leaders can have a dramatic effect on others. When leaders respond correctly, everyone wins. When they respond incorrectly, everyone loses.

3. Defining Moments Determine Who We Will Become
You will never be the same person after a defining moment. Somehow you will be moved. It may be forward, or it may be backward, but make no mistake—you will be moved. Why is that? Because defining moments are not normal, and what’s “normal” doesn’t work in those times.
I think of defining moments as intersections in our lives. They give us an opportunity to turn, change direction, and seek a new destination. They present options and opportunities. In these moments, we must choose. And the choice we make will define us! What will we do? Our response puts us on a new path, and that new path will define who we will become in the future. After a defining moment, we will never be the same person again.

Moments That Defined Me

The defining moments of my life have determined who I have become. Take away even one of them—good or bad—and I would not be the same person. And the defining moments that lie before me will continue to shape me.

As I look back at the many defining moments in my life and reflect on them, I can see that all of them fall into four categories:

Some Defining Moments Were Ground Breakers
Many of the defining moments of my life allowed me to start Something new. More than twenty years ago, I was teaching leadership to a small group of people in Jackson, Mississippi. At the close of the seminar, one of the participants asked if it was possible to receive ongoing leadership train­ing from me. I wasn’t sure how that could be done. However, as we talked, I could sense that many of the other attendees desired the same thing.

In that moment, I made a quick decision. I told them that if they would be willing to pay a modest fee, I would promise to write and record a new one-hour leadership lesson every month and send it to them. I had never done anything like that before, and I wasn’t even sure how to do it, but I passed a sheet of paper around the room, and to my surprise, nearly every person signed up. At the end of that day, I didn’t recognize that I had experienced a defining moment, but I had. My promise to them turned unto what I called a tape club—a lead­ership lesson subscription service on tape (and eventually CD) that rose to more than twenty thousand subscribers and continues even today.

Now more than two decades later, I can say with great assurance that my response in that moment was one of the most important leadership decisions I ever made. At the time, it looked like a lot of work. And it has been. But those monthly lessons allowed me to be a leadership mentor to thousands of leaders across the country and eventually around the world. Those lessons have provided material for many of the books I have written. And those lessons became the catalyst for me to start a resource company to facilitate the growth of leaders. Without that decision, the entire course of my life would have been different.

Some Defining Moments Were Heart Breakers
Not all defining moments are positive. I have experienced some very difficult moments, but sometimes those experiences have given me the opportunity to stop and make needed changes in my life. One such instance occurred on December 18,1998. As our company Christmas party came to an end, I suddenly felt a debilitating pain and weight on my chest. It was a heart attack. As I lay on the floor waiting for an ambulance, reality hit me. My priorities were out of whack, and I wasn’t nearly as healthy as I thought!

Over the next few weeks, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my health. I was working too hard. I wasn’t taking enough time off with my family. I wasn’t exercising regularly. And I wasn’t eating the right food. The bottom line: my life was out of balance.

During this season, I learned a lesson that is best described by the words of Brian Dyson, former vice chairman and COO of Coca-Cola, who delivered the commencement address at Georgia Tech in 1996. In it, he explained this:

Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them—work, family, health, friends and spirit and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls—family, health, friends and spirit are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.

I was very fortunate. When I dropped the health ball, it got scuffed but it didn’t shatter. Since receiving a second chance, I have redefined my priorities. I spend more time with my family. I exercise regularly. I try to eat right. I don’t do these things perfectly, but I’m striving to live a more balanced life. I don’t know what kinds of “balls” you may be juggling, but I recommend that you not wait until one of the important ones falls before examining your life. You can make changes without having to experience a heart breaker.

Some Defining Moments Were Cloud Breakers
Occasionally a defining moment comes as the result of seeing a new opportunity and taking action to seize it. That was the case for me several years ago. During the twenty-five years I worked as a pastor, I spent seventeen of them buying land, constructing buildings, and raising funds to pay for it.

One day a pastor and a key businessperson flew over to San Diego from Phoenix to have lunch with me. They were in a building program and said they came because I had a lot of experience raising the finances to make a vision a reality—something that isn’t taught in seminary. At the close of our lunch, they asked me if I would help them raise the money for their building program. “If you can do this for your congregation,” one of them said, “you can certainly help us.”

At that moment, it was very clear to me. I could help them. And I should. Before they left, we shook hands and I agreed to help them. I went out to my car in the parking lot, called a friend and said. “Next week we will begun helping churches raise money to realize their dreams? That was the birth of my company INJOY Stewardship Services.

Some Defining Moments Were Chart Breakers
The finest defining moments allow a person to soar to a much higher level. That was the case a few years ago at EQUIP a nonprofit organization that my brother, Larry; and I founded in 1996 to train and resource leaders internationally. The first few years EQUIP was in existence were typical of a fledgling organization. We were trying to establish ourselves, engage donors to help us, and develop a team to lead this venture. Those years were filled with trial and error, adjustments and changes as we worked to establish credibility as a leadership organization.
As time went by, I could sense that EQUIP needed a vision that would capture the heart and hands those who believed in our mission. I discovered that vision and then presented it one evening at a banquet with hundreds of supporters of EQUIP. I painted a picture in which EQUIP would train and resource one million leaders around the world in five years, and I challenged them to help fulfill it. The vision connected with the people, and EQUIP soared to a new level. That night was defin­ing moment for hundreds of people that over five years became a life-changing experience for a million people.

Defining Your Moments

Leaders become better leaders when they experience a defining moment and respond to it correctly. Anytime they experience a breakthrough. it allows the people who follow them to also benefit The difficulty with defining moments is that you don’t get to choose them. You can’t sit down with your calendar and say, “I’m going to schedule a defining moment for next Tuesday at eight o’clock.” You cannot control when they will come. However, you can choose how you will handle them when they come, and you can take steps to prepare for them. Here’s how:

1. Reflect on Defining Moments from the Past
It’s said that those who do not study history are destined to repeat its mistakes. That statement applies not only in a broad sense to a nation or culture but also to individuals and their personal histories. The best teacher for a leader is evaluated experience. To predict how you will handle defining moments in the future, look at the ones from your past.

2. Prepare for Defining Moments in the Future
One of the most valuable things I’ve done in my life is to make major choices before times of crisis or decision. That has enabled me to simply manage those decisions in critical moments of my life. A few of these deci­sions I made as a teenager, many in my twenties and thirties, and a few later in life. I wrote about these decisions in depth in my book Today Matters, but I’ll give them to you here so that you can get the gist:

  • Attitude: I will choose and display the right attitudes daily.
  • Priorities: I will determine and act upon important priorities daily
  • Health: I will know and follow healthy guidelines daily.
  • Family: I will communicate with and care for my family daily.
  • Thinking: I will practice and develop good thinking daily.
  • Commitment: I will make and keep proper commitments daily.
  • Finances: I will earn and properly manage finances daily.
  • Faith: I will deepen and live out my faith daily.
  • Relationships: I will initiate and invest in solid relationships daily.
  • Generosity: I will plan for and model generosity daily.
  • Values: I will embrace and practice good values daily.
  • Growth: I will desire arid experience improvements daily.

I don’t have to wrestle with these issues during a defining moment. They are already settled, and I am free to focus on the situation at hand and make decisions based on them.

3. Make the Most of Defining Moments in the Present
Now that you will be looking for defining moments, you will be in a bet­ter position to make the most of them. Remember that after we experience one, we are never the same again. But the kind of change we experience will depend on how we respond to those moments. Many of them present us with opportunities. With opportunities come risks, but don’t be afraid to take them. It is in moments of risk that the greatest leaders are often born.

I think there is a temptation to believe that all defining moments are highly dramatic and usually occur early in the life of leaders. I don’t think that’s true. You don’t need a lot of major breakthroughs to achieve dra­matic results. Just one can make a huge difference. As Albert Einstein used to say, he only came up with the theory of relativity once, but it kept him in pipe tobacco for years.

I believe that if I keep growing, keep seeking opportunities, and keep taking risks, I will continue to experience defining moments. If I keep mak­ing good choices and always try to do things that benefit my people in those moments, my leadership will continue to be redefined, to grow, and to improve. When that happens, everybody wins.

Defining Moment Define Your Leadership

Application Exercises

I. What is your track record? Look back on your life and the decisions you’ve made at critical moments. What kinds of defining moments have you experienced in the past? Write down as many as you can remember. For each, note:
• The situation
• Your decision or response
• The result

Have your responses been generally good or bad? Is there a common denominator for the poor choices? If you have the courage, ask those clos­est to you their opinion about your mistakes. If you see a pattern, what is it and how can you address it so that you don’t make similar poor choices in the future?

2. How are you managing your decisions? Using the following list as an example, create a list of choices you will make based on your values and priorities.

Attitude: I will choose and display the right attitudes daily
Priorities: I will determine and act upon important priorities daily.
Health: I will know and follow healthy guidelines daily.
Family: I will communicate with and care for my family daily.
Thinking: I will practice and develop good thinking daily.
Commitment: I will make and keep proper commitments daily.
Finances: I will earn and properly manage finances daily.
Faith: I will deepen and live out my faith daily.
Relationships: I will initiate and invest in solid relationships daily.
Generosity: I will plan for and model generosity daily.
Values: I will embrace and practice good values daily.
Growth: I will desire and experience improvements daily.

Post your list where you will see it every morning. Review the list daily for a month and manage your moment-to-moment decisions based on your choices.

3. How prepared are you for future defining moments? As you face each day, try to be alert to the kinds of defining moments leaders typically face:
• Ground Breakers—opportunities to do something new
• Heart Breakers—opportunities to reevaluate priorities
• Cloud Breakers—opportunities for a clear vision
• Chart Breakers—opportunities to go to a new level

Think about how you will make the most of these opportunities.

Shared by Adeline Chong, 2008 November.

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