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“So, what would you tell your 25-year-old self?”

I get that question all the time from young leaders.

It’s a great question.

There are so many things I would do the same, but there are more than a few things I’d do differently.

Some mistakes you make as a young adult and leader are inevitable, but not all.

In fact, I wish I would have applied or sometimes even known these 12 truths when I was 25. (Although I’m not exactly sure my 25-year-old self would have listened that well.)

Whether I would have listened or not, I’m positive they would have helped me lead and live better earlier.

Here are 12 things I’d tell my 25-year-old self:

1. Take God at His Word

For almost my entire life, I have believed that the Word of God is just that – the Word of God. I always landed on the side that trusts the authority of scripture.

But I would read certain passages and say to myself “Come on….really?”

I thought I knew better.

Time and again I have seen God’s word proven to be true not just in principle but in experience. In everything from how husbands ought to treat their wives, to scriptural ethics about relationships, to insights about human nature, finances and leadership, the Bible proves itself accurate again and again.

Disobedience (even slight) comes with a cost that you and the people you love pay again and again.

Frankly, I think I’m still working to take God at his word more seriously every day.

2. Get To A Counselor Earlier

I got married at 25, and before I got married I swore I had no ‘issues’.

Hey, when you live by yourself, it’s easy to get along.

Then as ‘issues’ emerged, I made the natural assumption that the blame lay with other people. Until, inevitably, I discovered I had a pile of issues (don’t we all?) I got counseling and help but not until after my wife and kids bore some of the cost of me not dealing with my issues earlier.

So I got counseling and help, but not until after my wife and kids bore some of the cost of me not dealing with my issues earlier.

Go to a counselor earlier. Get into accountable community earlier. And deal with your issues as early as you can in life.

Issues that you resolve at 25 won’t haunt you at 30. Unresolved issues, on the other hand, only get worse with time.

3. Work Twice As Hard On Your Character as You Do On Your Competency

As a young leader, I was 100% convinced that competency was the key to effectiveness in leadership.

I no longer believe that’s true.

Sure, competency is important. Incompetence doesn’t get you or your mission very far.

But competency isn’t the ceiling many leaders hit. Character is.

Why is that?

Well, all of us can name highly gifted pastors, politicians, athletes and other public figures who failed not because they weren’t competent, but because they weren’t up for the job morally. An addiction, an affair, embezzlement or honestly sometimes just being a jerk caused them to lose their job or lose their influence.

This is why I’ve come to believe your competency will take you only as far as your character will sustain you.

So what do you need to do to ensure your character doesn’t undermine your talent?

Work twice as hard on your character as you do on your competency.

It doesn’t matter how talented or gifted you are if you disqualify yourself from leadership.

4. Drill Down On Your Insecurity Faster

Have you ever met a truly secure person? Chances are they didn’t start out that way.

Most of us are on a journey from some kind of insecurity to a deeper sense of security.

Two things would have helped with this. Drilling down on my issues faster would have helped. And study some of the (then) emerging field of emotional intelligence would have really helped.

So much of leadership is actually not a battle with others, it’s a battle with yourself. So start early.

5. Trust Other People Earlier

I tend to be a fairly trusting person. So I was fairly trusting up front. However, I was very reluctant to trust at a deep level.

Over time, I’ve realized most people are not out to get you.

Most people care very deeply, and to let the right people in early is just a fantastic way to live.

6. Be More Selective About Who You Allow Into Leadership

I realize this sounds like a contradiction of the last point, but I don’t think it is.

Trusting deeply does not mean you should trust everyone deeply. And I lacked the discernment early on to know who to allow into leadership and who not to. In the name of being ‘nice’ or ‘fair’ I often failed to limit leadership to those most qualified to lead.

That always leaves the organization worse off. Not to mention what it does to you as a leader.

7. Abandon Balance And Embrace Passion

Almost everyone in leadership would advise you to lead a balanced life.

I’m not so sure.

In many instances in our culture, balance has become a synonym for mediocrity. Don’t work too hard. Don’t be intentional about your time. Just be balanced.

Here’s what I’ve seen.

Most people who accomplish significant things aren’t balanced people. They’re passionate people.

They are passionate about their work, their family, their hobbies.

In fact, they’re often even passionate about their nutrition and their rest.

They can’t wait to get up in the morning and attack the day.

When they engage relationally, they’re fully present.

When they’re with their family, they’re with their family. They give everything they have to everything that’s important to them.

So do a variety of things (work, play, family), but allocate your energy so you can do everything you do, including rest and relaxation, with passion.

If you’re intrigued by how to better manage your time, energy and priorities, my High Impact Leader course will open again soon. It’s a 10-unit video course designed to help you get time, energy and priorities working in your favor.

If you want to get on the waiting list for the High Impact Leader, sign up here.

8. Live in a Way Today That Will Help You Thrive Tomorrow

So many leaders struggle with staying healthy in leadership… spiritually, physically, emotionally, relationally and financially.

One way to look at leadership is to see it as a series of deposits and withdrawals.

All day long as a leader, people and the mission make a series of withdrawals from you: someone needs to meet with you, another person needs counseling, a third needs advice, a fourth wants to get that report done asap.

If you think of your life as a leader like a bank account, the problem eventually becomes the ratio of deposits to withdrawals. Over the long run, if you make more withdrawals than deposits, you go bankrupt.

That’s exactly what happens to far too many leaders.

The withdrawals that happen to you in life and leadership are inevitable. You can manage them well or poorly (which is something else we’ll help you master in the High Impact Leader course).

Here’s the thing, though: the withdrawals never go away.

It’s your responsibility to make the deposits.

This means applying the spiritual disciplines, physical disciplines, financial disciplines and the discipline to get the help you need to resolve your emotional and personal issues.

Here’s a question I’ve learned to ask myself and I would love every top leader to ask themselves daily: am I living today in a way that will help me thrive tomorrow? Spiritually, physically, emotionally, relationally, and financially?

If not, why not?

Since I started asking that question, I’m far healthier. It’s a recipe that works, so I’d suggest you start using it.

9. Spend Less Time Reinventing The Wheel Trying To Be ‘Unique’

I think most leaders want to quietly leave a little dent in the universe. At least some of us do.

What I figured out a decade into my leadership is that most of what I spend my days trying to do has been done by someone else, often better.

If there are synergies to be had by borrow a strategy from someone else, often it makes sense just to do that.

I wish I had stopped trying to be so original earlier and copied what could easily be copied, focusing my creative strengths on those things that would bring the best and most unique value to our team and organization.

There’s fresh research that shows people who are always trying to be unique are rarely the people who make the biggest impact on their field or in history.

10.  Play Favourites

My guess is you spend 80% of your time trying to help your struggling leaders get better.

They’re producing maybe 20% of your results, but you’re devoting 80% of your time trying to motivate them, get them to show up on time and get them to do what they said they were going to do when they said they were going to do it.

What if that’s a colossal mistake?

What if you spent 80% of your time with the leaders who give you 80% of your organization’s result.

That’s what the best leaders do: they spend 80% of their time with the people who give them 80% of their results.

What do you do with the bottom 20%? Let them go or let them figure it out on their own. Or limit your involvement to 20% of your time.

Your best leaders get better with time and attention. Poor leaders never do.

So try it…spend 80% of your time on the people that produce 80% of your results.

I know… I know… you’re pushing back. I get that. You think this isn’t a Christian thing to do. I’m not sure you’re right.

You’re afraid that playing favorites isn’t biblical.

Just the opposite. Not playing favorites makes you unfaithful.

Moses tried to treat everyone the same, and it almost killed him and wore out the people he led (just read Exodus 18).

He appointed leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. The result? Both Moses and the people rested, and Moses’ leadership (finally) scaled.

And it’s not just Moses. Jesus actually walked away from people who needed to be healed in order to get food and rest.

Jesus organized his disciples into circles according to potential impact…groups of 70, 12, 3 (Peter, James and John) and 1 (Peter) and intentionally spent the most time with those inner circles.

The early church reorganized and moved their key teachers and preachers away from daily tasks and appointed new leaders, which fuelled new growth.

So if you want to be more biblically faithful, start treating different people differently.

Loving everyone the same does not mean treating everyone the same way.

11. Focus On Productivity, Not Just Effort

I’ve always had a high capacity for work. But sometimes I would put in more hours than I need to.

I did too much solo early on, not employing a team. And often my methods meant I wasn’t as productive as I could have been.

You don’t get points for working 60 or 70 hour weeks. You get points for producing results.

I could have either shaved hours off my work week earlier or produced much more in the time I spent working by engaging a team earlier and focusing on productivity sooner.

Again, the High Impact Leader Course teaches how to do that. Had I only known that in my twenties….

12. Be Yourself. Everyone Else is Taken

Oscar Wilde was so right: Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

I wasted loads of time and energy wish I was either someone else, had a different gift set or been wired differently than I was.

You need to repent of your sin, but you don’t need to repent of who God made you to be.

He made you beautiful, and quirky, and different than he made everyone else. Get rid of the sin; leverage the distinctives.

I wished I would have become more comfortable with who God designed me to be earlier. In fact, in some ways, I’m still working on that.

What Would You Add?

Those are 12 things I would definitely tell my 25-year-old self.

What would you tell your younger self? Leave a comment!

In addition to serving as Lead Pastor at Connexus Community Church north of Toronto Canada, Carey Nieuwhof speaks at conferences and churches throughout North America on leadership, family, parenting and personal renewal.

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