Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to [confound] the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to [confound] the strong.” —1 Corinthians 1:26-27 (NIV)
This title speaks to the ability in a wise leader to recognize a “dark horse” when they see one. It’s an expression that indicates someone in the ranks of an organization, movement, or company who doesn’t stand out because they’re not prone to draw attention to themselves. A dark horse is secure in who they are, they’re gifted in their areas of strength, and are content to remain where they are if necessary. But when it comes down to pulling their weight, or rising to the occasion, they shine in confidence and skill to provide wisdom and leadership that could save the day. Joseph, was such a man. A dark horse, down in the dungeon of prison, nowhere to be seen or found among Pharaoh’s court officials. Until he was discovered. Until God’s timing arrived to bring him forth.
When God sent the prophet, Samuel, to Jesse’s house to anoint the next king of Israel, he assumed it was the eldest of the brothers, Eliab. Eliab stood out. But God checked Samuel’s rationale and said, “Don’t consider the appearance or height, but look at the heart.” So Samuel went down the line, from the oldest to the youngest of the seven brothers present. God said “no” to all. Puzzled, Samuel asked Jesse if there were any more sons. Jesse replied there was one left, “but he’s tending the sheep.” Hmmm, a dark horse perhaps? The youngest, ruddy kid of the lot, serving in the lowliest job in the house as a shepherd? That’s right. An unlikely teenager who happened to be a man after God’s own heart.
Jesus, too, picked the least likely of men to become his first apostles. Among them were fishermen, an insurrectionist, a tax-collector—all from the district of Galilee. Can anything good come out of Galilee? They were nothing special. All were considered uneducated. All were considered too liberally-minded from rubbing shoulders with tradesmen of caravans passing through Galilee’s trade routes connecting Africa to Asia and Europe. There was no one mighty among them, no one noble, no one old and experienced or wise—just all young men. Dark horses.
In my earliest years as a leader, I chose some leaders to partner with me who—by outward appearance—seemed an obvious choice. After some (not all of them) were set in, I eventually discovered another side to them. They weren’t men after my own heart. In some, there was pride, selfish ambition, and disloyalty. Others became lazy in their responsibility—though they had initially put on a show of competency. I took too much for granted when I brought them into the team. I hadn’t done my homework. I had not vetted their history. I knew little about their work pattern or leadership style. I didn’t take enough time to observe their families.
Don’t be in a hurry to promote leaders, no matter how badly they’re needed. It’s easy to promote someone into a ranking position. Not as easy to demote them. Here are some telling signs of the types of people to avoid partnering with in your mission to lead, especially in high ranking leadership roles:
- Those who’re eager to tell you about their accomplishments.
- Those who offer ideas they won’t let go of, and always try pushing them on you.
- Those who constantly flatter you about your skills or achievements. Why do they do this?
- Those who take a mile of authority beyond their assigned sphere of responsibilities.
- Those who have a pattern of starting and stopping projects.
- Those who have a pattern of quitting their jobs.
- Those who’re in a constant state of chaos (drama) with their family, work and relationships.
- Those who’re deeply in debt, due to poor financial stewardship.
- Those whose names repeatedly come up in the middle of a conflict with other employees, organizational departments, or church members.
- Those who’re constantly critical of others and are gossips.
- Those who require constant attention from you and are easily offended or suspicious if they don’t receive it.
- Those whose family members—under their roof—are emotionally unhealthy or unstable.
- Those who’re rigid and rule-driven.
- Those who don’t get along well with others.
- Those who’re so overly confident in their abilities they’re unable to receive input or correction.
- Those who show no merciful side to others.
I could go on, but let’s look at the qualities of a “dark horse.” The dark horse exhibits the opposite traits of those above. But here are some important positive traits to look for:
- A desire for personal growth.
- A willingness to be teachable and receive instruction.
- A strong work ethic.
- They recognize a need and take care of it without being asked to.
- They make themselves valuable in their arena of responsibilities by developing their skills and going beyond their required duties to make what they do work better and more efficient.
- Many times, they don’t see themselves as leaders, but merely as servants in the background to advance the mission and cause of the team.
When choosing leaders, we tend to look for the brightest stars in achievement, beauty, charisma, and talent. It’s natural to do that. We all do that. What we don’t look for is what God sees in a person potentially. We tend to look for leaders who’ve already arrived and seem to be the obvious choice. But we rarely examine the not-so-obvious person, with the greater potential—in time. We settle hastily for what’s currently available without noting there’s a better choice for longevity to be found in someone who’s a dark horse.
When we find the dark horse, we invest in their potential first, then promote them at the appropriate time, and not a day sooner. This is what Jesus did. He chose his future leaders before he made them leaders. He invested three-and-a-half years of his time in them. He saw their potential, whereas the world saw uneducated, open-minded, free-thinking, rebellious-prone Galileans.
Based on my own experience, I prefer to grow an enterprise or organization slow and steady; vetting, training and developing my own leaders, rather than growing explosively where I’m forced to pick leaders already shaped and groomed by someone else’s ideology, philosophy and model of what a leader should be. To use a cliché: “Been, there done that, and got the T-shirt.”
I’ve found it’s better, without the drama, to invest my time in potential leaders. It’s a slower process, yes—but lasts so much longer. The greatest investment of time and money a leader can spend is on potential men and women for future roles of leadership. Let the obvious leaders—who’ve already appeared to arrive—start and lead their own mission. Help them get there because they’ll eventually do that anyway, sometimes at the expense of your mission. I know there can be exceptions to this rule, but I’ve found it to be rare. At least for me. So I look for dark horses.