I have spent a great deal of time lately mulling over the propensity of otherwise good leaders to crash and burn after years of effective leadership. we have examples in Scripture of leaders like King Saul and there are many contemporary examples. But what are the factors and symptoms that most often contribute to good leaders who get themselves into trouble?
One. We neglect our inner life for too long a period of time. This is usually not by design but the busyness of life (leaders are busy) and the demands that are either self imposed or other imposed (and not regulated) cause many leaders to run faster and faster until they are exhausted and the shallowness of a neglected inner life catches up. We can easily rationalize our busyness by thinking that what we are doing we are doing for God but He does not ask us to do anything at the expense of our inner spiritual lives.
Schedule, a fast pace of life fueled by the "importance" of what I am doing are deadly to healthy leaders. Because our outer life is simply a reflection of our inner lives, neglect of the former spells trouble for the latter. The antidote is actually to slow down and do less activity, more introspection and spend more time with God. He does not feed our ego as our activity and other people do but He feeds our tired and hungry hearts.
Two. We start to believe our own press. People tell us we are good leaders and somewhere along the way we begin to believe that we are better people and leaders than we really are. Our humility erodes and our pride increases until we end up with a highly over inflated view of our leadership, self importance and value to the organization we lead.
Belief in ourselves, our abilities, when they become over-inflated, cause us to make decisions without adequate input from others (we know the direction, we know the truth north) and even make over-calculations as to the impact of those decisions. After all we have a history of making good calls so this one must be a good one as well.
The antidote is never to believe the press others give you but to cultivate a thorough and accurate self knowledge that is based on deeply understanding one's wiring, dark side, propensity to sin and the "real truth" about who we are. The more press we get, the more time we need to access who we truly are because the accolades from others are never a true picture of who we really are. It is only a public persona that others see. They see the good but we know the dark side. What we want to maintain is an accurate picture of who we are which is rarely the inflated picture others have of us as leaders. The loss of personal humility is deadly to any leader.
Three. We stop listening to the people who will tell us the truth and start listening to those who tell us what we want to hear. This is a very dangerous place to be. Those who tell us what we want to hear simply stroke our egos and opinions which only works to prove to ourselves what we want to think or hear. It is false knowledge that begins to skew our view of reality. When our view of reality becomes skewed, we see life through a faulty lens which blinds us to the dysfunction in our lives and causes us to make decisions that are based on skewed data.
Once a leader gets to this stage, they are headed for trouble because they no longer listen to truth tellers, even those who have been truth tellers and counselors in the past. Because they trust their own judgments, they are able to discard those who don't agree with them and seek counsel from those who will agree with them.
This is complicated by a fourth characteristic. Leaders at this stage often divide people into two camps, those who are for them and those who are against them. After all, with an inflated view of our own self importance and value, those who disagree with us must not understand how God is using us! And in getting in our way they are also getting in God's way. Often those who share opinions or counsel that the leader does not want to hear are marginalized and put into the enemy camp effectively preventing them from ever speaking into their lives again. I have had this happen to me on a number of occasions.
This becomes a self fulling prophecy of leadership implosion unless it can be halted. The antidote is to surround ourselves with wise, Godly people who have permission to speak into our lives and whose counsel we will never disregard even when it is hard to hear. The best counselors are those who have had a history of giving us wise counsel in the past, before we were in the place we are today. When leaders crash and burn and others look back they almost always see an individual who has isolated herself or himself, stopped listening to those they used to listen to and increasingly narrowed their list of friends or counselors.
Fifth, leaders who crash and burn have usually isolated themselves from others. Often this is because they no longer feel they need to be accountable, or are running too fast to stay in relationship, or are unwilling to be transparent in their relationships out of a desire to control their image. This isolation also involves keeping others at arms length so that it is not easy to "reach" them. Often, the knowledge that my opinion may cause them to marginalize me will keep me from speaking up, and the strong personality of an isolated leader can keep me from pressing in.
Image control naturally leads to isolation since transparency is a prerequisite of close relationship and transparency gets in the way of image control. The need to control image is a sign of one who has become isolated and that isolation will eventually hurt them. God designed us for relationship and community and that community keeps us from going in directions that are unhealthy. Isolation removes the protection of deep friendships and community and sets us up for trouble.
All of us need others in our lives who will speak truth, hold us accountable, help us in our journey of faith and give wise counsel. When we cross a line where we are too important or too busy to cultivate those relationships we will find ourselves in dangerous waters. If you are a leader, pay attention to these five characteristics. We are all susceptible to them. They are very dangerous, each of them. In combination they are deadly.
Ask yourself these questions on a regular basis:
1. Am I too busy for my inner life?
2. Am I starting to believe my own press?
3. Have I marginalized people I listened to in the past?
4. Am I dividing people into camps: for me and against me?
5. Am I becoming isolated?