By Daniel Darling
Leadership, in any capacity, is an honor. When you’re entrusted to manage people who are paid to work for you, or even volunteers under your leadership, you’re doing more than simply trying to get work done. You’re an important part, for better or for worse, of a key season in their lives.
It’s not merely a job. It’s stewardship. But it’s easy to think of your leadership role as strictly the former. And when we see our leadership and mentoring roles as jobs to be completed, we can unwittingly and unknowingly sabotage one of the main responsibilities we’ve been tasked with: developing and launching other leaders.
“Getting things done” can quickly evolve into the slippery slope of not only hindering our own efforts but sabotaging the flourishing of those we lead. Let’s look at some of those traps we can fall into and identify some ways to avoid them.
1. Not being approachable
There’s a commonly-held leadership ethic that says the best leaders don’t show too much of their vulnerable side and keep their employees at an arm’s length. I don’t agree with this.
Let your guard down a little bit. It’s important for us to lead with humility.
What’s more, we should treat our employees as human beings. While it’s vital for us to hold them accountable, help them be more productive, and encourage them to take seriously the tasks before them, we have to constantly remember—as their leaders—that our people are not the sum total of their work. They are whole human beings.
Sometimes I’m nervous about the productivity and leadership literature that seeks to maximize and squeeze as much juice from those who work on our team in such a way that we forget we are indeed working with complex humans—people with experiences, emotions, dreams, and families.
We can give off the subtle message that people are useful to us only so much as they produce. A more biblical model of shepherding holds people accountable but recognizes they aren’t productivity bots on an assembly line.
2. Neglecting intentional encouragement
If the only time your staff member hears he or she is doing a good job is at an annual review, you likely need to reevaluate your leadership style. We shouldn’t coddle the adults who earn their paychecks, but we should find ways to commend their good work and to encourage them.
This is incredibly easy to do and yet it seems to be rare among many leaders. A short note saying, “Hey, that report you did was really well done.” Or, “I just want you to know that I’m grateful for your voice.” Even the most incorrigible team member has something about which you can commend, if you truly look.
And if you lead a team of volunteers—which you likely do—it’s just as important to offer encouraging words or otherwise demonstrate your appreciation for them. Most volunteers don’t give of their time and talent so they’ll be praised; they do this because they want to serve the Lord through serving others. But the same principle holds true with unpaid servants under your leadership.
Sometimes we hesitate to offer encouragement because we mistakenly believe if we offer a nice word it will lead to that person getting puffed up with pride. But what we don’t realize is that for every kind text or word of encouragement, they are likely being hit with messages of discouragement, both from the voices in their head and from other negative input.
You’d be surprised how even seemingly confident employees or volunteers go home wondering, Do they like me here? Do they value my work?
Don’t make the people you lead question these things! If you haven’t been someone who regularly encourages your team, be an intentional encourager going forward.
3. Not being clear with your expectations
Few things frustrate employees or volunteers more than leaders who are unclear about what they expect. I’ve had to learn this the hard way, as I’ve often been vague about expectations, leaving those who work for me wondering who is in charge and what the deadlines are.
I’ve come to understand that clear communication and deadlines incentivize hard work and productivity. This might mean setting realistic deadlines (not unrealistic deadlines—those are deadly for morale and productivity) and clear ideas about what you expect from projects you assign.
You should also be clear when you have to offer rebuke or criticism—which you will have to deliver if you are a leader—otherwise you’ll be misunderstood. The words you use here are important.
The best criticism I’ve received has come in ways that help me see how I can soar rather than personal barbs that seem unfair and out of nowhere. This is what I’m seeing, help me understand if I’m wrong is always better than, You always … and you never… and why can’t you.
4. Lacking confidence in your leadership
People follow confident leaders. Confident leaders don’t have to tell me they are in charge. I just know by the way they carry themselves. Insecure leaders have to remind people how in charge they are and how important they are, with little reminders of the difference between their level and yours.
My thesis is that bad leaders lead out of their own insecurities. Bad leaders feel they have to prove themselves every day. It’s good, periodically, for leaders to do some deep soul-searching and to find areas where we feel shame and insecurity.
It helps me in my leadership to continually revisit the truth that God loves me, that I know God, and that He knows me. When I’m confident in my relationship with my Creator, I can then lead others with confidence.
It’s also important for us to build confidence, not artificially, but by leaning into the role God has given us. This is one of my biggest takeaways from J. Oswald Sanders’ classic Spiritual Leadership.
There’s nothing humble about being sheepish with the task and the office God has given us. And there’s nothing inspiring about having to remind everyone of our power and authority.
Confident leaders know their role and step into it with grace.
5. Losing focus of the pace you’re setting
Sometimes those of us who are ambitious and full of ideas don’t understand the pace we’re setting for those who work for us. It’s good and right for us to have high expectations for those we lead, but if the people we lead are burned out, drained, and cynical, that is a failure of leadership.
Sometimes we set an unhealthy pace without realizing it. This is especially true with highly competent, task-oriented employees or volunteers. They will likely just take and take work and won’t let us know when they’re overwhelmed and have too much work.
What we don’t often realize, as leaders, is that those who work for us want to please us. They won’t come forward and tell us they are exhausted and overworked because they fear it will have a negative impact on their job status or on the particular ministry they lend their time and talents toward.
It’s up to us to monitor the pace of our employees.
If our inbox zero means inbox infinity, we aren’t caring for our team members. If our idea of margin and rest means those we lead get no margin and no rest, we’re being selfish.
While it’s important for us to maximize productivity for our church, organization, or company, it’s also important for us to steward well the bodies and souls of those entrusted to our care.
We should periodically ask ourselves what kind of pressure we are putting on those around us: Is it healthy or is it toxic?
6. Not helping others launch and grow
It’s easy to get into the rhythm of getting things done and overlooking the importance of developing those we lead and helping them grow their skillsets and develop their gifting.
If you lead a team of employees, we should be willing to hold their careers of our employees loosely and look for ways to help them launch and grow. Sometimes this means letting them try new responsibilities or areas of creativity.
Sometimes this means intentionally resourcing, with encouragement, permission, and even budget for them to branch out into new vistas of opportunity.
I once had a boss tell me I should be more intentional about writing for other publications. She did this knowing it would take time and energy away from projects at the organization for which we both worked.
But she could see beyond the immediacy of what was in front of her toward the long term. She saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself.
We should work to try to be leaders who not only see where our employees or ministry volunteers are today, but where they could potentially be in five or 10 years.
How can we give oxygen to their giftedness? How can we connect them to opportunities where they might flourish? How can we open doors and set them up for success?
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling) is vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and teaching and discipleship pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution.