I’ve been leading in one capacity or another for the last 18 years, and in ministry for just as long. I’ve mentored emerging leaders, built strong teams, shaped culture in organizations, consulted senior management, discipled others, launched a company, and recruited those filled with great passion and potential. I’ll be the first to admit that for a good chunk of my tenure as a leader, I’ve felt a bit in over my head and not exactly the most qualified woman for the job. (In all fairness, I sometimes still do!) But I will say this, it’s been one wild ride, and one I wouldn’t trade for anything!
I’ve felt the pure exhilaration that comes with watching someone I’ve invested in soar to new heights. I’ve felt the deep satisfaction of seeing a defeated team transform into a winning one. AND I’ve also experienced the heartbreaking blows of betrayal and offense that comes with leading long enough. And when my own pride or ignorance got the best of me, I’ve had to learn a few leadership lessons the hard way.
Leading others is a rollercoaster of emotions and experiences- one that can leave us elated and, let’s be real, at times, a bit nauseous.
Leading well and leading for the long haul doesn’t happen without some intentionality. No one just happens to stumble upon building a healthy team or leaving a great legacy. Just like no one ever really stumbles into creating a toxic culture, committing a moral failure, or experiencing the debilitating realities of burnout.
Our small choices have a way of snowballing into either fulfillment or frustration, joy or disappointment, hope or downright devastation. To be frank, I’ve watched the lives of some leaders I’ve loved deeply and admired greatly self-protect, self-sabotage, and self-destruct, and the greatest casualties of all were the people closest to them. The first time I witnessed it as a young leader in my early twenties, I was shocked and disillusioned. It left me questioning the decisions I was making, and seeking wisdom to protect me from attitudes and behaviors that, if unaccounted for, could devastate not only my own life, but others as well.
Now when I hear about the latest leadership scandal, immorality, or abuse of power, sadly, I am not as shocked. After all, this is no longer my first rodeo. I do, however, repeat the same questioning I first had when faced with the frailty of human leadership: “God, what within me needs to change so that my heart can be right before you and others?”
I don’t think I’ll ever stop asking this question. At least, I hope I never do. It has opened my eyes to see some choices that all too often leaders can make (and that I myself have been guilty of) at the expense of the health of our souls and the integrity by which we lead.
So here is my list of the top pitfalls for every leader to avoid. I pray they empower you to lead from a full heart, a renewed strength, and an unstoppable hope!
Isolating yourself from the people near you.
After a few heartaches as leaders, the temptation is to keep the people closest to us at arm’s length. We, of course, justify this lack of real connection on a local level by investing in friendships with other leaders who live in different cities, states, and nations. We look forward to the upcoming conferences and events where we can reunite with the people who really get us, people we can open our hearts to. This is an important element of friendship for us leaders, but, and this is a big BUT, it can never replace having honest, transparent, and intimate friendships with a few solid people who get to see us day in and day out, who can call us on things and encourage us when we are a little down, who can cheer us on and challenge us from the unique vantage point that only proximity brings.
Playing the blame game.
Let’s face it- sometimes the people we lead do dumb things, or to sound a bit more biblical here, foolish things. It’s frustrating, annoying, and disappointing. But you know what? We do dumb, err, foolish things too. As leaders, we don’t need to take responsibility for other people’s choices, but we do have to take responsibility for ours. Sometimes, the very best thing we could do for the people we lead is to simply take a good, hard look in the mirror and acknowledge where our leadership has room for improvement. If you are frustrated by the results of your team, and it’s always someone else’s fault… well, chances are it’s time to own up to your weaknesses without shame and seek out the wisdom God has for you to continue to develop as a leader.
Skipping out on Sabbath.
What is it about us leaders that eternally believes we can accomplish more than humanly possible? Where exactly does this misguided enthusiasm come from? Most likely pride or fear, or a combo of both. And it sure can take us to some dark places! God knew what He was doing when He created the Sabbath, and one day a week away from work to rest and refresh is not a luxury, but a necessity. It keeps us healthy and humble. And it ensures we find joy beyond our accomplishments, while grounding our identity in intimate connection with God, family, and friends.
Turning what is sacred into a job.
Reading the Bible. Praying. Serving others. Time spent with friends and family. Attending worship services. These are sacred practices, and within these rhythms we walk with Jesus and become more like Him. Too easily though, these same practices can become merely part of the job description for the Christian leader. Before long our greatest motivation for reading the Bible is not to hear God’s voice; it’s to come up with a dynamic sermon. Lunch or coffee with another is no longer about thriving in community; it’s about getting someone on board to help execute and contribute to our next big project. Prayer is no longer about intimacy with Jesus; it’s about hoping God will co-sign on our plans. When this happens, we must return to our first love or we will soon find our leading passionless, selfish, and shallow.
Ignoring your emotions.
I wish they taught emotional intelligence in grade school instead of cursive, but they didn’t. Depending on how we were raised, the leadership examples we’ve had, and our own experiences with navigating our emotions, we may find ourselves suppressing and avoiding feelings in the name of faith, courage and perseverance. But our emotions refuse to go ignored; if we don’t pay them attention, they will kick and scream until we do. Our feelings are not scary monsters to be afraid of; neither are they slave drivers who need to call all the shots in our lives. Emotions simply need to be recognized and processed. Tending to our emotions keeps us attune to the needs of our hearts.
Seeing transitions as rejection.
Transitions are hard, even the very best of them. There’s always some amount of grief and loss when having to say goodbye to someone we genuinely loved leading. We will feel the pain of their absence and the weight of making sure the role they filled is taken care of with excellence and progress. We must however, resist the urge to take someone’s good bye as a mark against our leadership or our friendship. My Pastor Paul Andrew says it best, “We have to learn to hold people loosely without treating them lightly.” Love people as they exit, speak well of them when they aren’t around, and if they occasionally don’t execute their farewell the way you would have wished for, bless them anyway. God sees what we do in secret, and we can trust that He will lead us from strength to strength and from glory to glory.
People will hurt us along the way, and we will inevitably do the same to others. We are human after all. Sometimes the hurt stings; sometimes it bruises, and sometimes it breaks the heart. Even so, stay tender towards people. Friend, do whatever it takes to uproot any weeds of bitterness trying to fill the spaces of your heart. Love keeps no records of wrongs, and your life is far too valuable to be kept bound by the hidden chains of unforgiveness.
Believing in your own hype.
The more successes we experience, the more applause we receive, the more awards we win, and the more people we influence… well, the more tempting it becomes to believe we had more of a part to play in our victories than we actually did. We can celebrate a job well done without growing a big head, and yes, there is a difference between godly confidence and arrogant swag. There’s always more ways to grow; there’s always more to learn; there’s always more opportunities to serve. And word to wise: RUN from anything that resembles a celebrity-driven culture, because we as the Church were never called to status, but to service. Jesus said, “Whoever humbles himself will be exalted, and whoever exalts himself will be humbled.” (Matthew 23:12)