How do you act when you’re hurt, frustrated, or embarrassed? How do you respond to people when you’re exhausted or stressed? Do you lash out in anger? Do you shut down and detach from people, or do you smile through the difficulties and try to act like nothing’s wrong?
Most people have internal, relational risks that manifest when life gets tough or certain triggers are released. In this post, I want to explore the dynamics of leadership risks and highlight three things you can do to minimize the effects they have on your influence.
Leadership risks are behaviors that, when left unchecked, damage the influence that we have with others. They can even derail or undermine a person’s leadership all together. Though these risks may or may not have immediate impact, they can slowly decrease any influence you have and greatly limit the overall progress of a church or organization.
Although these leadership risks look a little different for each of us, we all have them. Unfortunately, every one of us has experienced hurt. These risks develop from the relational injuries that we experience throughout life, especially in childhood. There isn’t anyone alive who hasn’t experienced some kind of pain in their past or assumed a defensive posture in retaliation to perceived threats to the heart.
We must understand that these defenses are not always negative. Our defenses can help keep us alive and prevent us from experiencing hurt from unsafe people. Defenses can be very important to our health and our ability to thrive. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:10-11, “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” We must armor up and protect ourselves from the wiles of the devil. Of course, this implication is spiritual, but it’s just as applicable and important from a relational standpoint as well.
King Solomon tells us in Proverbs, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23). There are many spiritual and practical reasons we should protect our hearts.
1. Your heart has immense value.
Your heart is the essence of who you are. It is the core of your being, connecting you to God and people. Solomon says we must protect it “above all else,” which means we must make it the highest priority.
2. The vitality of your life depends on your heart.
Solomon says that the heart is a “wellspring of life.” Everything good that comes out of you flows from your heart.
3. Your heart is always under attack.
There is a war going on in each of our lives, and there are people seeking to devour others. Solomon knew how important it was for us to guard our hearts.
It’s important that we have boundaries and enforce those boundaries. Healthy defenses and boundaries are needed in leadership and in life, but there are times when the good defenses we’ve put in place can get in the way of our healthy, life-giving relationships. When this happens, our defenses can become an issue, and they become leadership risks.
Unfortunately, we usually aren’t even aware that we use the same defenses that protect us from unhealthy relationships on our healthy relationships. Perhaps you have experienced these defenses from others or you have been responsible for this type of behavior yourself. When our defenses go unchecked, they can begin to damage our leadership influence. This is why it is important to become aware of your risks and the things that trigger unhealthy reactions if you want to be a healthy leader.
I want to reiterate that these risks are sometimes hard to recognize, and they’re often referred to as blind spots. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. I have a coaching client who has the amazing ability to show compassion toward others; it’s one of his greatest gifts. The people he leads feel loved and cared for and accepted by him, but when he’s tired or experiences a buildup of stress from all that he is responsible for, he can feel overwhelmed. When he has to tell someone something that they don’t want to hear, confront a situation, or tell someone “no,” his compassion can get the best of him. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so he gets a little passive aggressive. He avoids the real issue and handles the problem in a passive way.
Instead of the leader being straight forward with the truth and using his amazing gift of compassion to mercifully confront the situation, he strains the relationship with his passive aggressive behavior. This behavior may not hurt the relationship the first time; but over time, if the behavior continues, the relationship will deteriorate.
In tough times, leaders can outwardly support someone, but inwardly oppose and disagree. You probably know exactly what I’m talking about; most people have felt this type of passive aggressive behavior. Passive aggressive behavior is one of the most difficult risks to endure. The person having to experience this behavior knows there’s a problem, and they can become frustrated when they don’t understand what that problem really is.
Passive aggressive behavior is just one of many types of risks in leadership; there are many others. Some leaders become selfish when they're stressed and tired. Some act out in mood swings or emotional tirades. Some leaders withdraw and tune others out. Others worry and have trouble making decisions, frustrating the people they lead. Some leaders want to please everyone. Others struggle with perfectionism so badly that they drive everyone around them crazy. There are a host of negative behaviors that can create risks and reduce the effectiveness of successful leadership. Two of the things that I've personally worked to overcome and I'm still working to overcome are perfectionism and mood swings. These issues usually come to the surface when I’m tired and stressed.
If these things are so detrimental to leadership influence, what can we do about them? What can we do to overcome these passive aggressive and perfectionist tendencies as well as our emotional imbalances? There are three things that I want to share with you from The Christian Leader Blueprint model that can help you successfully navigate these risks.
1. Establish a better rhythm of life.
The leader’s first defense is to create a healthy rhythm of life, minimize unnecessary stress, get adequate rest, and learn to function with a good work-life balance. When our lives are healthy and we experience a good rhythm, the tough, stressful times are not as frequent and the risks to our leadership don’t affect us as often. When we’re healthy in rhythm, we have the ability to respond to people in a much better way.
2. See yourself more clearly.
Awareness alone is very powerful. We can increase our awareness with the help of a counselor or executive coach or even just by having good, honest conversations with the people we lead. When a leader becomes more aware of his risks, the awareness alone will help him have the ability to push against his natural inclinations and respond in a healthier manner.
3. Grow your character.
The last and most effective way to minimize negative risks is to grow your character. When I say “grow your character,” I don’t mean for you to develop your morals. I mean that you need to cultivate the things that increase your ability to face the realities of life.
Unfortunately, doing this is not easy. It takes hard work to create and maintain boundaries, engage in need-based relationships, regulate emotions in a healthy way, experience loss, failure, and weakness properly, and expand and maintain your emotional capacity. Growing your character takes time and usually requires help from coaches and counselors as well as healthy peer relationships.
If you truly want to minimize the effects of your risks on your life and leadership and improve your influence with people, you must be willing to work hard to establish a healthy rhythm of life, see yourself clearly, and grow your character. Effective leadership is possible when we make the necessary adjustments to soften and even remove leadership risks from our lives.
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