The Destiny Factor in Leadership


A leader’s ability to understand the power of destiny and use it skillfully is a defining factor in how great that leader will be.

From the moment I began reading the lives of great men and women—until now, three decades of leading and training later—I have been fascinated by a force that seems to be always at the heart of heroic leadership: an unshakeable belief in destiny. After studying this dynamic for many years, I’ve come to a conclusion: A leader’s ability to understand the power of destiny and use it skillfully is a defining factor in how great that leader will be.

Read the lives of notable leaders from the past or listen carefully to effective leaders today and you will hear the tones of destiny echoing in their words and actions.

Examples are not hard to find:

  • Years after he became prime minister of England at the start of World War II, Winston Churchill recalled, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial… I thought I knew a good deal about it all, I was sure I should not fail.”

  • To white South Africans, Nelson Mandela once proclaimed, “We might have our differences, but we are one people with a common destiny in our rich variety of culture, race and tradition.

  • Abraham Lincoln summoned the best in a divided country when he insisted, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

  • Even Lady Gaga incites her millions of fans with sentiments like, “If my destiny is to lose my mind because of fame, then that’s my destiny.”

  • And support him or not, Barack Obama moves hundreds of millions when he declares, “Hope is the bedrock of this nation; the belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us; by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is; who have courage to remake the world as it should be

Most powerful leaders achieve because they believe themselves destined. They see themselves as moved by an invisible force. Many believe that God has determined their life’s path. Some have confidence in the forces of history. A few are convinced their lives unfold according to the will of their ancestors. What is import for our purposes here is that leaders with the power to change institutions usually believe that there is some prior determination about their lives and that this pre-determination comes with power to lead.

What this produces in a leader cannot be measured. Leaders who think themselves destined usually possess some remarkable traits.

  • They accept that they are unique.–They are not surprised when they have insight that others do not, when they enjoy exceptional privilege, when rapid promotion graces them or when suffering and tragedy touch their lives.

  • They see themselves as sent to serve.–The best leaders understand that they are blessed with gifts meant for the good of others.

  • They are courageous.–The great British religious leader George Whitefield said, “We are immortal until our work is done.” Destined leaders think this way. It is why Douglas MacArthur routinely exposed himself to machine gun fire to check on his troops during the First World War and why Martin Luther King Jr. marched openly before his rifle-bearing enemies. Destiny prevails, these men believed.

  • They see the issues of their time in mystical terms.–As World War II dawned, many world leaders spoke only of German rearmament and geo-political alignments. Winston Churchill spoke of the “Christian nations” answering the call of this “dark hour” to oppose “blackest paganism” and “win the world for our grandchildren and their children after them.” That is how great leaders think.

  • They see their followers as destined.–Wise leaders understand that most people yearn to fulfill their destiny more than they yearn for money, comfort or fame. Skilled leaders learn to summon the best from those they lead by appealing to the innate sense of destiny that resides in all human beings.

  • They frame objectives and vision in terms of destiny.–We aren’t just building a college for blacks students, we are building an institution that will change the God-ordained destiny of our race, said Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. We aren’t just at war, said General George Patton, we are engaged in a contest between good and evil that God has chosen us to win. Lincoln said Now is the hour. It is destined. Steve Jobs said This is why we are in the world. Pope John Paul II said I am destined to suffer and teach the world about suffering. This is also how great leaders think.

  • They see the future as their responsibility.–Leaders who believe they are destined and who are entrusted with great power don’t usually think in terms of their generation only. They look to the future and accept responsibility for the state of the world that those yet unborn will inherit. This makes them impatient with failure, devoted to planning, passionate about building, eager to act against evil and determined to leave a benevolent legacy.

This can all be summarized in the phrase The Destiny Factor.  I think it is one of the most important perspectives on leadership that we can acquire. I’ll be writing more about this soon. I’m already speaking about it around the country and finding leaders hungry to know more.

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