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Raising up and releasing leaders

Have you ever wondered about the best ways to empower and release the leaders around you? In this Elevate podcast we hear from Eddie Waxer, founder of the International Sports Movement, about raising and releasing leaders. Eddie is a master at getting leaders and organisations around the world to partner on global evangelism through sports. He has been a friend to top tennis players, soccer players, cricketers, American football players, and many more. Yet, Eddie has always had an approach of being in the background and giving away honour, credits and authority. He epitomises servant leadership and demonstrates how one can raise up and release leaders that will go further than the leaders who empowered them. 

Raising up and releasing leaders


Leading from the back

Leaders who desire to create a movement that advances the gospel need to make a decision: do they want to prioritise themselves, or do they want to prioritise the mission? If it is the mission, then they have to function in a different manner. It requires leaving vast amounts of space ‘at the top’ for those who are leading the movement on the ground.

Eddie recalls how, over the last 20 years at gatherings, he would always sit at the back. He never introduced the conference speakers, nor was his name in any of the conference material. ‘For nearly 15 years, most of the people had no idea what I looked like, what the colour of my skin was, or how old I was,’ says Eddie. ‘I intentionally tried to make sure that there was nothing between me and anyone else.’ For Eddie, good leadership is about empowering others to go beyond where you have gone.

It can of course seem tricky, to create a movement on such a large scale. How does a leader structure their day-to-day priorities in order to be accessible to everybody? The reality is that if you are raising up gifted men and women – individuals who are actually more gifted than you – as your leadership mantle will shift to their shoulders over time. People will start seeking their perspective too, because you’ve empowered them to be credible people in their particular sphere of influence.

It’s all about humility

Humility is much more important than skill when identifying potential leaders, Eddie explains. If a leader isn’t humble, ultimately, when you face a crisis you’ll see division and conflict. You have to have a humble leader whose ego isn’t going to determine how they make decisions. Once humility has been identified, one can look at skill.

Eddie recalls how he would often spend three years or so observing specific persons. He would notice how they respond when asked to, for example,to go get water for everybody, or to move the chairs and set up the room for the meeting. If they had a negative attitude, showing that they thought such a task was below them,  he would take note.

‘I realised that that person probably wasn’t the right person to empower. It’s the little things that were important in that identification process. Once it was confirmed that a person had the humility to go along with their remarkable gifts and skills, then began the real empowering process,’ says Eddie.

Such an empowering process takes time because when you’re leading or serving a movement, relationships are hugely vital. Unlike in a corporate context, you don’t just fire and replace the person when a relationship turns sour. ‘In a movement, you have to see each other as an equal, you have to work together and have humble respect for each other for each other’s gifts and talents. That’s why I’ve spent a lot of time on humility,’ says Eddie.

Why is humility the key ingredient? 

When you’re sitting around the table with 10 or 12 gifted individuals, they’re most likely going to have strong opinions. However intimidating this may sound, you want people with really strong opinions around your table, but at the same time you want them to be humble.

You need people who can say ‘You’re right, I’m wrong’ – and if you have gifted people who can say ‘I’m wrong’, then you can go a very long way.

‘I believe the growth God has allowed in the International Sports Movement has been on the basis of humility, not skill,’ says Eddie.

Giving others centre stage

More often we tend to reserve the centre stage for the most gifted or experienced person in the room. In the process, leadership sometimes seems unattainable and reserved for the select few.

If we are to raise up a movement of leaders, Eddie says we need to adopt a more inclusive approach. Those who teach devotions shouldn’t necessarily be the white-haired senior theologians, but young leaders in their 20s and 30s who are from developing countries. Those who sing needn’t be the most famous singers who carry the tune perfectly, but rather people who have a heart for worship, and are trusted and known within your community. We need to model the message that  everybody can be up front – not necessarily just the most gifted or charismatic person in the room. These corporate moments where everybody has the opportunity to lead have a great impact on what happens locally, as young leaders return home with greater confidence and vision to serve within their own local communities.

The importance of trust

Eddie explains that he continually tries to look at the New Testament as a model. ‘I simply can’t imagine the apostles Paul and Peter asking for weekly reports from those that they were mentoring. That is so common these days and it’s a very Western, business way of thinking. I decided that if people were gifted and humble, then I was going to trust them. I was never looking for numbers of how many evangelism appointments someone had or how many Bible studies they led. I’ve always felt that trust is critical,’ says Eddie.

The emphasis leaders need to keep is discipleship. ‘We often emphasise the wrong things… but emphasising discipleship is what I think the New Testament most models and it’s the reason why the church grew.’

Eddie encourages leaders to be part of the team, not apart from it, where the team brings you recommendations to which you say yes or no. You need to really build the kind of team where you have those people who can do as well as, or better than, you at growing the vision God gave you.

Eddie’s unique view of, and approach to, leadership might be challenging to many leaders. But however challenging, it seems the rewards of leading from the back, keeping humility as a core leadership value, and empowering other leaders to lead in the same way, are clearly evident.

To learn more about raising up and releasing leaders, listen to the full podcast here.

The Elevate Leadership podcast series is also available on all other major podcasting platforms such as Apple, Google, Overcast and YouTube.

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