Good leadership is a big ask. It entails unravelling intricate relational knots, settling ruffled emotions, overseeing controversial decisions, and guiding others forward through trying circumstances, all while experiencing them ourselves. We hold ideals for what our leadership should look like—participatory, humble, wise, meeting people where they are—and yet frequently find ourselves responding in ways that don’t match up with our intentions. Our best laid plans for building up others and bringing about needed change get hijacked, among other things, by our own stress behaviors and unintended reactions.
I don’t have to look far for an example of this in my own leadership. A few years back I was asked to develop and facilitate a spiritual formation program for a group of global leaders. Months of careful preparation led up to what, I hoped, would be a sacred space for honest self-examination, vulnerable sharing with others, and transformative encounter with God. But the week did not unfold as I had imagined. Some of my sessions fell flat, my content and style met with critique, and I myself found it difficult to connect with people. In the moment I could tell that I wasn’t responding to the situation with the level of flexibility and grace that I aspire to, but what I couldn’t see was how my reactivity was shutting down the very processes I was trying to facilitate. Where was the breakdown, and what within my way of being had so radically interfered with my way of doing?
Leadership does not happen in a vacuum. We are humans before we are leaders. Whether we are aware of it or not, we carry our inner selves—shaped by our ongoing experiences and deepest needs—into our leadership. This functions both as an asset and a liability. Our humanity enables us to relate with others, to share with them the comfort that we have received, and to point them to the hope that we ourselves have walked deeply with Jesus to take hold of. And yet our humanity also gets in the way of our ability to relate with others. Exhaustion, anxiety, and insecurity hinder our capacity to love as God loves, and our own unmet needs can produce reactions that distance and destroy rather than nurture and build up.
In my case, recent developments in our family situation had re-surfaced deep insecurities about my personal significance and my sense of acceptability before others. We had a child in crisis, were facing yet another move, and were in the process of relinquishing our vocational stability, plan for the future, and belonging to a particular community and place. With my sense of identity and belonging laid so vulnerably bare, my stress behaviors were triggering off the charts. I went about seeking to establish my significance and secure my place in this organizational community by proving what a great job I could do, only my heroic efforts had more the effect of a bull in a china shop. What others intended as gentle critique came across to me as goading rejection. What I intended to be interactive, life-giving facilitation came across to them as rigid and domineering. Though my words invited creative response, my demeanor shut it down.
As humans, the state of our soul inevitably affects the quality of our leadership. This truth goes far beyond simply addressing the need to guard our souls from sin and to nurture love for God in our own lives (the importance of which always merits emphasis). It points us to the significance of recognizing and addressing our own deepest needs in an ongoing manner. Just as our need for food, sleep, and oxygen is ongoing, so are our needs for love, acceptance, belonging, and significance. Where these have been damaged through past relationships or deprived through current circumstances, we will be vulnerable. Certain situations or interactions will act like triggers, bumping against our tender areas and provoking unexpected reactions, which usually are our built-in mechanisms for self-protection, need-meeting, and situation management. The problem is that these coping mechanisms are rarely experienced by others as loving, let alone consistent with good leadership.
So we are human, and our humanity affects our leadership. What can be done about it? I have learned the significance of taking the time to notice these reactions within myself and prayerfully identify their deeper causes. Beyond confession, these moments of deepening self-awareness move me to bring my whole self into more intimate relationship with God. I come as a little child, asking Him to kiss the parts that hurt and assure the parts that are scared until I am once again securely at rest in a world over which He lovingly reigns. Only then am I a whole enough person to safely lead others.
Questions for Reflection:
- What reactive tendencies do you notice in yourself? How do you behave when under stress? (You may want to ask your spouse, children, or teammates to help you identify these.)
- In what sort of situations or interactions are these behaviors likely to come out? What do you notice as a common factor?
- As you consider this common factor, ask the Holy Spirit to help you see the fears, insecurities, or unmet needs that may be driving your reactions. What might these be?
- What could be a more godly and helpful approach to addressing your areas of vulnerability?