I have been thinking and writing about the qualities of emotionally healthy leadership since 1996. Each book (e.g., The Emotionally Healthy Leader) and theme in The EH Discipleship Courses touches a different facet of emotionally healthy leadership. Yet, as I continue on my own growth journey and interact with leaders, my nuancing of these challenges continues to sharpen.
The following are my 10 challenges to being an emotionally healthy leader:
1. Deep Loving Union and Surrender. Behind the pressure and demands that seek to cut us off from abiding in Jesus are powers and principalities of evil. To follow Jesus’ voice and will, regardless of where He leads, requires a deep trust developed through a long, slow history of being with Him in secret. This kind of depth cannot be learned in a class or book. Antidote: Faithfulness to spiritual practices. Obedience in the small things. Initiative to position yourself in places where you will be challenged spirituality (e.g., retreats, trainings, spiritual directors, mentors).
2. High Self-Awareness. This grows more challenging as we grow older and move into larger levels of responsibility. Our shadows are elusive and impossible to eradicate this side of heaven. They rear their ugly heads in our leadership when we least expect it, especially when we are riding a wave of success or failure. Antidote: Be reflective. And take initiative to invite wise people to speak into your life (e.g., mentors, therapists, spiritual directors, trusted friends).
3. Deep Brokenness and Vulnerability. I wrote about this in The Emotionally Healthy Church in 2003. I realize now, however, that it is best understood on a scale—perhaps of 0 to 10. Can I let go of my position? My title? People’s praise? Am I open to hearing criticism—even from people that don’t say it with the kindness and maturity that I prefer? Am I vulnerable to those around me about my mistakes and sins? In what area(s) of my life might I be presenting myself to be something I am not? Antidote: Repent daily, perhaps hourly. Invite multiple, courageous people to speak truth into your life. Take adequate time for reflection.
4. Limits. Almost everything we do takes double, or triple, the time we expect. Determining our goals before God takes time. Breaking down these goals into specific steps, followed by thinking how much time each step will take, takes even more time. Including others in our process takes time. And plotting this all out on our calendars takes even more time. Leadership is hard. Painful. It grounds us in our limits. Then, taking an honest inventory of the time, energy and ability of those who work for us confronts us with our humanity once again. Antidote: Take ample time to prayerfully get clear on God’s goals and to think through the steps needed to accomplish those goals. Again, find a wise friend or consultant who does this well. Get mentored in this area.
5. Lifelong Learning. The world is changing so rapidly that, if we are not learning and growing, we are in trouble. The people we lead are in trouble also. I am amazed at how many leaders can’t be bothered (“I have too much to do”) or stop learning from others once they have achieved a certain level of “success.” This is one of my criteria for a good hire. Antidote: Make this a non-negotiable for your team and ministry. Model it in your own development. Be sure to create a culture of learning and growth.
6. Organizational Integrity. Exercising power and setting wise boundaries in leadership is complex, especially when we add in the “God factor.” Dual relationships, clear expectations and job descriptions, hiring and firing (even of volunteers) all require skill and high differentiation. Antidote: Include a wise, outside consultant into your process. Seek counsel from mentors who have led healthy ministries. Master the eight skills from The Emotionally Healthy Relationship Course in your own life so you can apply them in your ministry. And carefully study chapter 8, “Power and Wise Boundaries,” from The Emotionally Healthy Leader.
7. Truth. Spirituality is not an escape from reality, but rather an immersion into it. That includes seeking to know the truth about the things that are not going well. I like things “nice and neat” and don‘t like conflict and tension. Living in truth, especially as leaders, demands character, courage, and faith in Jesus. Why? It often leads us to places we prefer to avoid—both in ourselves and those we serve. Antidote: Ask difficult questions. Be curious. Trust Jesus who is the Truth. Ask often for feedback from people willing and able to tell you hard things. And bring in objective outsiders whenever possible to give a fresh perspective.
8. Wise Counsel. When I turned 60 last July, I gave myself the gift of two hours with a wise mentor. I set up phone calls with two other godly leaders in their 70s and 80s. I read books with theological and practical insight on aging. At each stage of my journey with Jesus, I search out people ahead of me—whether it is in the area of prayer, organizational leadership, spirituality, finances or social media. I was careless and sloppy in seeking out wise counsel in my early years, resulting in needless pain in my personal life, our family, and our church. Antidote: Pray. Ask trusted friends for referrals. And set aside time in your calendar to meet with more mature people.
9. Your Marriage or Singleness. We work out our marriage to Jesus through our secondary callings, or vocations, as single or married persons. For this reason, building a firewall to protect the health of our closest relationships, whether we are married or single, is critical. Establishing healthy boundaries so we can model a marriage or singleness that is a sign and wonder to Christ is no small task—especially amidst the crucible of leadership. Antidote: Talk with your core community (spouse or close friends) about what is needed for you to have a high-quality marriage or singleness. Seek out mentors or therapists with the maturity to speak into this vulnerable area of your life.
10. Say “No.” Discerning what God has specifically given us to do is one of our most difficult tasks. Good opportunities that are not God’s best and demands from strong people can easily distract us. It has taken me decades to more fully realize how a yes I say without prayerful discernment results in a no to many of God’s precise plans for my ministry and time. Antidote: Have a hard conversation with yourself, and then with your team. Are you clear on God’s vision and plan? The team He is calling to work with you? Are you willing to be patient and take the necessary time for prayer and wise counsel before saying yes to opportunities?