5 Common Pitfalls of Leadership (and how to avoid them) - Sage Hill Counseling

5 Common Pitfalls of Leadership (and how to avoid them)




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Leaders find much fulfillment in serving others. Whether it’s serving as a CEO or a parent, their most significant moments come when they are giving their gifts, abilities, passion, and creativity. Even so, leaders who pour out great energy doing what is fulfilling also need to refill. Leaders need to be able to receive restoration and replenishment so that they can continue to serve well. They refill by being humble enough to know their limits, their needs and ask for help.

I have worked with leaders for almost 30 years. I have recognized 5 common pitfalls that block leaders from receiving the replenishment that is essential to lead well over the long haul. These pitfalls can stymie a leader’s passion and purpose. As a result, the very people the leader wishes to help do not receive what they need.

1. Work becomes confused with worth

Leaders can draw crowds, get things done, or set themselves apart from others through accomplishments or talents. This work can be good and true. However, a leader can confuse the crowds, the feedback, and accomplishments with their worth as a person. A leader’s sense of confidence and value can begin to go up or down based upon the applause. In the up and down roller coaster of pursuing worth, the words “Dad” or “Mom” lose their sense of value and purpose. This effect can happen to professionals, little league coaches, church volunteers, and PTA presidents. A leader can easily forget that their worth comes from being human. Worth is inborn; we don’t lose it. The crowd looks for what the leader can give. God and loved ones look for the heart of who the person is from the inside out. Worth tied to the crowd can mean loss of recognition of worth as a person.

2. Performance begins to be valued more than presence

When a leader’s main personal value is associated with performance, they become someone they are not—human doings. To be present means to be able to present the truth of our inner selves as human beings. Presence is the ability to speak the feelings, needs, desire, longings, and hopes of one’s own heart. Present people can be “in need” and be led. Performers develop contempt for their neediness. They also eventually develop secret contempt and fear towards the needs of others, because they see others as the ones who demand that they perform.

The ease of being one’s true self is lost in the “dis-ease” or stress of believing that one is only valuable for their performance.  

3. To be an example to others the true self is isolated

Leaders often put pressure on themselves to perpetually be of service, to appear a certain way, to always be an example—as expected by others. This demand for perfection sets up a leader to deny their own feelings and needs. Denial does not stop needs, but instead arouses shame when the leader has a need. Isolating the heart from being known from the inside-out leaves a leader hungry to get needs met and yet unable to need people to meet the needs. An inanimate source of fulfillment can become the “getaway” or “cure” for the leader at this point. Counterfeit fulfillments of needs take the place of relational fulfillments.

4. Secrets sap the leader’s passion and purpose

The “getaway” or “cure” is usually a closely held secret. A secret is anything one withholds from appropriate people because they fear rejection, judgment, censuring, or being controlled. Secrets require that a person withholds emotional and spiritual struggles from the people who hunger to know them and love them. Secrets block the intimacy, or “into-me-see,” that is an essential part of human encouragement and fulfillment. They make a person sick because they are not connected to relationship with others. At this point, a leader begins to survive in a cycle of work, performance, isolation, and secrets that increase shame and guilt. To dissipate the shame and guilt, the leader tries to work harder, perform better, which cycles into a repetition of isolation and secrets. As the cycle continues, a leader will begin to experience symptoms of burnout, depression, excessive anxiety, addiction and other forms of impairment.

5. People become things

Leaders enter the world of doing good because they wish the pain of the world to be treated, bettered, or healed. As the pitfalls develop, however, people the leader wishes to serve become burdensome objects that have to be dealt with; people who the leader works with become objects that have to be manipulated; and family members become burdensome objects of needs that have to be met. The leader who originally planned to benefit others is now at a significant crisis point. They must move into neediness as human beings or fade into despair as human doings.

Out of the pit

These pitfalls can be avoided or healed by practicing three principles:

  1. A leader can reawaken to and practice feeling their feelings (see The Voice of the Heart).
  2. They can practice telling the truth about their feelings (see The Perfect Loss).
  3. They can practice sharing their neediness with trusted others who they discover as they enter the process of knowing and sharing their hearts (see The Needs of the Heart).

The willingness to accept one’s self as a human being and grow in heart can move mountains of problems. A leader can enter a process that can point them to a way to live fully, love deeply, and lead well as a human being, instead of having to be the way for others who will follow them as a human doing.

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