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Dan's Insights and Inspirations for Empowered Leadership

How to Say "Yes", Before You're Ready

There are two kinds of people. First, there are people who expect to feel ready when opportunities present themselves. Maybe they have an opportunity to communicate a new idea, take on a harder job, travel to a new country or lead in a new position… they ask themselves "Am I ready for this? Am I good enough? This is new, uncertain, and challenging…do I have what it takes?" They take stock of their skills and experience, and if they come up wanting, they say "NO" to the opportunity. They're not ready. They need more time, more experience, more money or more support before they take a leap. 

Then there are people who say "YES" before they are ready. People who believe that the right opportunity will help them become the right kind of person. When presented with a once in a lifetime opportunity, they jump at it… even if they know they don't yet have what it takes, and don't really know what they're doing. 

Examples of leaders saying "YES" to opportunities before they were ready are everywhere in American History. When George Washington was asked to lead Patriot troops during the Revolutionary War, he had never led another revolution. He was making it up on the fly. Martin Luther King had only led a small church before he was tapped to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As it exploded into the Civil Right Movement, he had no clue what he was doing.  Abraham Lincoln was one of the most inexperienced, unknown politicians in the country when he was elected president. Facing the monumental crisis of the Civil War, he had no choice but to figure it out as he went. 

Why do some people pass on opportunities to lead, while others say yes before they're ready and rise to the challenge? 

This quote from Jacqueline Novogratz (CEO of Acumen Fund) sheds some light. 

“Just start. Don’t wait for perfection. Just start and let the work teach you.” 

Learn to Let the Work Teach You

Learning to let the work teach you means that you've surrendered the idea that you'll always know what to do next, or you'll always have the right answer. You won't. But, if you're committed to your goal, you know can try new approaches until you figure it out. You'll learn as you go. Every wrong turn is a step toward the right turn. Each hour you diligently work toward your goal, you'll gradually gain the perspective and knowledge you need to do the work even better. 

Olympic swimmers know this better than anyone. There's no way to become a world class swimmer without jumping in the pool for the first time. You can sit on the edge, study others swimming, and read books on swimming… but nothing actually happens until you jump in the pool and start swimming. Let the work of swimming make you a better swimmer.  

Authentic Leaders let their work teach them. They start where they are, instead of waiting for a day when everything makes sense (because that will be a long wait) and all the stars align. Instead, they understand that they have to make things happen when they don’t feel like it. When they don’t have all the information. When they don’t really know what they’re doing. When people don’t agree. They choose to get started before they’re ready. Because they know that they’ll never, ever be ready. No one is.

Grow As You Go

So how do you muster the confidence to say "YES" to a major unexpected opportunity? In my book Authentic Leadership I retell an incredible story in the Bible about a young man named Gideon. Early in the story, before he becomes a leader, he has a significant encounter with God. He’s the youngest member of the smallest tribe in Israel and God presents him with a huge opportunity. God calls him to jump to the head of his family, tribe, and entire nation. God wants him to lead the Israelites out of oppression, saying, “I will be with you.”

Gideon had never led at the level God is asking him to lead, and he was understandably afraid. So, like you and I might do, he put up a fight. “Pardon me, my Lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” 

In other words, Gideon said, “I have no reason to believe this is going to turn out well. Everything in my life suggests that this will not end well for me—or for my people. You may want to find a sub, God. I’m not ready” 

If we’re honest, we’ve all been there. The opportunity of a lifetime actually looks like a giant risk. While it might be a risky opportunity to better your situation, it feels far safer to stay where you are, hope for the best, and wait until conditions are perfectly comfortable before you say "YES". 

Then God says to Gideon something we all need to hear, “Go in the strength you have … Am I not sending you?”

Gideon receives an incredible command from God, because God essentially says, “You have enough to get started. I’ll give you what you need along the way. You'll learn as you go. You simply need to start moving forward.” Deciding to let the work teach you is deciding to move forward without every comfort and assurance and safety net.

You have enough time.

You have enough money.

You have enough support.

You have enough vision.

You have enough creativity.

You have enough to learn as you go. So get started, go in the strength that you have, and your strength will grow as you go.