Disappointment in Leadership

Michelle Moran
July - September 2016

Many of the most popular movies are stories of heroes, supermen or women who triumph over difficulties and challenges. Eventually everything works out well and there is a happy ending. It would be wonderful if this was the reality of our lives, unfortunately, things are a little more complex. For those of us who are seasoned leaders, we know that amidst the blessings there are often problems, disagreements, divisions and disappointments. Clearly, it is impossible to totally avoid disappointment, however, I want to suggest some ways in which we can avoid or overcome discouragement and seeming failure.
Invest in the future
I was recently in conversation with a young leader who began by telling me that she wasn’t a very good leader and she wanted some ideas about how to improve. I began by asking her what was it that made her think that she wasn’t a good leader. She said that when she compared herself to the main leader of the group, she felt very inadequate and ineffective. She said that her leader was someone totally committed to the Lord, a person of great prayer and integrity who worked so hard that she sometimes didn’t have time for herself. She described the leader as a courageous risk taker who was willing to take on projects that were big and demanding but in the end she was always able to get the results by encouraging people to work together. When I asked how long this senior leader had been leading, the young leader replied 20 years.
Certainly, the senior leader was a woman of good spiritual character and temperament. She was able to draw the team together and get the desired results. However, it would seem that too many things were dependent upon the leader.
Unless we as leaders invest in the future many good works of the Spirit eventually flounder and die leaving people disillusioned and disappointed. Obviously, the experienced leader was a good role model but her leadership style was perhaps lacking in the area of identifying, investing in and empowering the next generation of leaders. The senior leader had a ‘Timothy’ by her side who was keen to learn. Yet the potential of the young leader had not been recognised. She was not being mentored.
Succession planning
Groups and communities flourish with good leadership. However, wise leaders are not only focusing on
the present, they are looking to the future and planning ahead. Times of change and transition in leadership bring a natural sense of insecurity. Leadership succession needs to be planned. It can be very disappointing for established leaders to see so many of the things they have worked very hard at establishing not flourishing when there is new leadership. There needs to be a healthy continuity in leadership and this happens when key leaders pay attention to and invest in the next generation.
Be yourself - lead as the person who you are
My advice to the young leader was to affirm her as the unique person that God has created her to be, as Psalm 139 says, we are ‘wonderfully made’. Clearly she admired her leader and could learn a lot from her. However, some leaders make the mistake of trying to lead like other people, particularly leaders
they admire and respect. This inevitably leads to disappointment and often failure because we can only lead as the people who we are and this is, in fact, our unique gift. Obviously, we can learn from other people but we have to be prepared to grow in our own particular leadership gifts and to not always be comparing ourselves to others.
My golden rule for leaders is to grow in self knowledge to “know yourself and lead as the person that you are”. It is also important to recognise that other people are not always the same as we are, they have different personalities, gifts and skills. We can have false or unrealistic expectations of others and this can often lead to frustration and disappointment.
Trust in the Lord
Leadership ultimately flows from responding to God’s call. Indeed it is the sense of calling that enables a leader to persevere even in difficulties. The famous leaders in scripture such as Moses, Jeremiah, Jonah, Peter and Paul, all had their own particular leadership gifts alongside their personality defects. All of them were lacking in certain skills. However, they were prepared to trust in the Lord, knowing that God who had called them would not fail them. Rather than fearing their own weaknesses and imperfections, in faith, they believed in God’s ability to succeed.
Too many leaders act as if everything is dependent upon them. Leadership then becomes a human enterprise and when there are difficulties and challenges the temptation is to quit. Those who learn to trust in the Lord are able to endure. Their strength is renewed (Isa 40:28-31).
Trust others
One of the biggest pitfalls in leadership is when the leader thinks that they have to do all the tasks themselves. This can stem from insecurity or a distorted sense of what it means to be hardworking and diligent. Ultimately it leads to burnout or inefficiency. Leaders can become discouraged or fail simply because they tried to do too much. Jethro had to help Moses learn the important skill of delegation. He said; “it is not right to take this on yourself. You will tire yourself out, you and the people with you. The work is too heavy for you. You cannot do it alone” (Ex 18:17). Notice how the weakness or short-sightedness of the leader impacts the whole group. Thankfully Moses took the advice of his father-in-law. As a result, the whole community was empowered and there was a sense of corporate leadership (Ex 18:25-6).
Several of the biblical leaders also learned that it isn’t necessary for one leader to possess all the leadership gifts. There can be a wonderful leadership dynamic and synergy when leaders work with others in a complementary way. So Moses and Aaron were a perfect team and Paul and Barnabas were, for a time, a dynamic duo. They lived together in Antioch for a year (Acts11:26), they were set apart by the Spirit for mission (Acts 13:4), they experienced persecution (Acts 15:50), and won respect from all. Unfortunately, despite all their missionary zeal, endurance and fruitfulness in ministry, after “a violent quarrel they parted company” (Acts 15:39). A seemingly trivial disagreement led to the separation of one of the most dynamic missionary pairings that the Church had ever seen.
Be on your guard
Here we encounter one of the most painful leadership areas, relationship breakdown and division. This not only affects those directly involved, it also impacts the whole community. Infighting, unresolved conflict and tension drains a group and robs them of their spiritual vibrancy. Sadly, some people end up leaving their groups or ministries because they are so disillusioned and disappointed in their leaders behaviour or in the leaders inability to resolve or manage conflict.
John 10:10 says; “the thief comes only to rob, kill and destroy”. Certainly the enemy seeks to strategically attack leaders. There is a proverb that says, “if a wolf attacks the flock he gets a sheep. If he attacks the shepherd he gets the whole flock”. St Paul said in his final exhortation to the leaders in Ephesus; “be on your guard for yourselves and for the whole flock which the Holy Spirit has made you the overseers”.
Leaders therefore need to be alert and attentive engaging in spiritual warfare for themselves and their people. They need to have the insight and courage to try and resolve conflict when it arises. Obviously not every disagreement is a crisis, wisdom is needed in order to discern when ‘unhealthy tension’ is developing in the group. Undoubtedly, if this is not dealt with it will eventually erupt like a volcano and everyone will be injured.
Trials lead to triumph (Rom 8:37)
Sadly, because of our human and sinful disposition, conflicts and divisions are inevitable. During these difficult times, the leader in their natural disappointment has to draw upon the grace of leadership, in order to lead the whole flock through the difficult phase. This is not easy, it is only by God’s grace that we are given the ability to remain steadfast under pressure.
Paradoxically, we often learn the most profound lessons at times of seeming failure or defeat. Jacob wrestled with God (Gen 32:26) the Lord needed to show Jacob that real strength comes only through trust and surrender. Every seasoned leader goes through their own time of trial and disappointment. It is important to remember that; “we are only the earthenware jars that hold the treasure... that power comes from God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:7-8).
We do not know the details of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ (Cf. 2 Cor 12:7) but we know it was something sent by the Lord to prevent him getting too proud. The Lord wants to break through our self reliance and teach us to rely upon him. “My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Paul showed us that through his own difficulties he got in touch with his personal weakness and then, by the grace of God, his weakness became his strength; “For it is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
Hopefully this word will console all of us in our leadership challenges. It will encourage us to endure and keep moving forward despite the difficulties. Thankfully, as we learn to lead in the power of the Holy Spirit we recognise that everything is not dependent upon us. We need embrace our leadership calling and aim to do our best and then surrender and trust in the Lord. Paul certainly learned this lesson when he shared this beautiful prayer with the Ephesians; “glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20). ++++