The Pitfalls of “Personality” Leadership
Pride in Leadership
Recently, I began reading a book that has been deeply convicting my soul. The more that I read it, the more evidence I see in my own life of areas that I need to change…that I need the Holy Spirit to change me. This book is called The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Timothy Keller. In the book, he defines our culture’s incessant need for the inflation of our own ego, and talks about how the path to true Joy in the Christian life is one of humility and repentance of pride.
In this book, Keller defines our ego as empty, painful, busy, and fragile. The solution to an over-inflated sense of self worth is having a transformed view of yourself that only comes by the saving power of the Gospel and walking daily with God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
This led me on a study through James where I have been teaching/preaching/writing over the past several weeks. And trust me, the podcast this week was just the icing on the cake. If we as pastors, leaders, ministers, etc. think that we can lead from the power of our own personality and ideas, void of the Spirit of God, we will accomplish nothing for God’s glory.
I believe that pride is the root of all sin. This is because all sin is self-seeking behavior, and all flesh is affected by sin in the world. We naturally have an inclination to inflate ourselves, exalt ourselves, and worship ourselves. This not only carries into our everyday lives, but also into our leadership positions. And I believe that pride is at the very root of the podcast episode this week: “Leading Beyond the Force of Personality.”
Sole-Dependence on Skills and Abilities
One of the characteristics of a productive organization is a charismatic leader. But it can also be a major pitfall. Organizations that are built solely on the personality of one person are not only problematic, but they are seriously dangerous. Last summer, I listened to another podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It’s a podcast that documents the rise of Mars Hill church to prominence and influence, but also the falling apart of the church after a series of bad leadership decisions. When this podcast first aired, it stirred up a lot of conversation about church leadership.
Some who were a part of the Mars Hill family only had good things to say about their time as members. Many more ended up leaving the church because of unhealthy leadership, bad relationships, loss of gospel standards, and a lack of clear communication. Some people were hurt because of an abuse of power. Listening to the podcast is a tragic story about how hard a church can fall when they have built their whole structure around one man’s personality.
The reason why this type of leadership can result in failure is frankly because of the sin and pride in our hearts. Trying to lead solely based on our own personality is like telling God “I don’t need you,” while spending every moment wondering how a decision will impact your image. When this happens, we grow too dependent on ourselves and less dependent on God. Consider John the Baptist rephrasing his statement, like this: “He must decrease, I must increase!”
But we must remember what the word of God says: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
Pitfalls of “Personality” Leadership
We all have a distinct personality that has been given to us by God. It naturally flows out of us as we make decisions and meet people where we are. Our personality is not a bad thing. However, our personality can sometimes get in the way of leading from a healthy place. Leadership by personality alone is not sustainable. And while you may have a great personality that is approachable, lively, and full of charisma, people can often feel diminished by the strength of your disposition.
Unfortunately, this type of leadership is the main reason for pastoral burnout. When we fail to incorporate others in decision making and lead from a position of narcissism (“I can do it myself”), we think that the success of our church or organization is dependent on our identity and persona. This is an interesting thought process, and one that comes from the flesh. Leading solely from our personality is so clearly wrong that the results are painfully obvious. Crashing and burning is just around the corner. We know in scripture that we may water and plant seeds, but who is it that gives the growth? God alone, friends.
Here is a better alternative: we should humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift us up. Let the Spirit lead us, because the Spirit of God knows much more about how to honor God, than we do. The spirit is willing! The flesh is weak.
One of the books I continually refer to is called Replenish, by Lance Witt. In the book, Witt sums up my thoughts by saying this:
“We have neglected the fact that the pastor’s greatest leadership skill is a healthy soul. Our concentration on scale and technique and strategy has resulted in de-emphasizing the interior life. The outcome is an increasing number of men in women leading our churches who are emotionally empty and spiritually dry. It is the story of a neglected soul and mismanaged character. Of a slow drift into relational isolation. Of being seduced by ambition. These leaders didn’t intend for it to happen, but somewhere along the journey they stopped paying attention to what was going on inside of them. The shift was incremental and at times imperceptible.” (p. 19)
For God’s Glory Alone
You can use skills, abilities, and personality in your leadership position for God’s glory! But I think that doing this is easier said than done. It requires that we lay down our own ambition and pride, and we lead from a place of humility. Here is the biblical precedent for it: 1 Cor. 7:17, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” For what purpose? To what end? “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). If you want to lead from a place of humility, here are some practical ways we can do just that.
#1. Make much of Jesus in every leadership decision. Share about Him often, and make sure the mission or goal of your church reflects the mission of Jesus Christ. It’s about Him, not us! If we walk by the Spirit, we will not gratify the desires of our flesh.
#2. Remind yourself daily that the church is not “your” church and the ministry you serve is not “your ministry.” We are shepherds and stewards; Jesus is the owner.
#3. Work hard at praising others, not yourself. It’s better to be an encourager, not an overbearing manager.
#4. Be interested in others, and incorporate others into your decision making while taking a general care in their lives.
#5. Don’t isolate, stay in touch with the people who are surrounding you in this ministry. God has put them there for a reason.
#6. Have regular, open accountability with others about your personal pitfalls.
#7. Remind yourself daily of the gospel and its impact on your life.
Always be Self-Aware
Look at the people around you. If there aren’t many, look at your wife and your family. Then, ask the hard questions. What are some ways that I’ve been slacking lately? Do you see any selfish ambition or pride in me? Can you help me see things about myself that I cannot see?
Always be Socially-Aware
How do your decisions affect other people involved in your ministry? Could it be said that you do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, and count others more significant than yourself? This caution is meant to cause us to look outwards, towards those around us.
Know when to Self-Regulate
One of the greatest things you can do as a leader is understand how and when to pull back and let others take the lead.
To lead with humility, a good rule of thumb is to take Paul’s words on humility and put them in the context of leadership. I’ll paste the words here from Philippians 2:1-8
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
For more information on this topic, see the books I referenced: The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Designed to Lead, and Replenish. See this week’s podcast episode here.