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Leadership Pain - Part 2

Last week we discussed how leadership, though wonderful and exhilarating, is also painful. Effective leaders don’t run from the pain. The best leaders don’t run from their pain; they don’t deny it exists. This is the most effective leadership development tool the world has ever known. You’ll grow only to the threshold of your pain, so the only wise thing to do is raise it.

As my primary place of leadership is as a pastor, I found a book a few years ago that impacted me and helped my leadership immensely. It was Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code.The author is Sam Chand. He is a self-described leadership architect and consultant, change strategist, and dream releaser. A newer book, Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growthis written for those in ministry-related leadership, but the values transfer to any place of leadership.

Chand is ruthlessly honest and highly practical as he examines the principles and practices that make our pain a means of growth, not the end of our story. He argues that pain is a hard-core reality in leadership. It will humble you, break you, and make you—if you let it. The bottom line is, if you aren’t hurting, you aren’t leading.

Today’s blog is a compilation of quotes from Chand’s book that speak powerfully to me. Perhaps this book should be your next investment in yourself.

It’s inevitable, inescapable. By its very nature, leadership produces change, and change—even wonderful growth and progress—always involves at least a measure of confusion, loss, and resistance. To put it another way: Leadership that doesn’t produce pain is either in a short season of unusual blessing or it isn’t really making a difference. So, Growth = Change; Change = Loss; Loss = Pain; Thus, Growth = Pain.

In fact, leadership—all leadership—is a magnet for pain, which comes in many forms. We catch flak for bad decisions because people blame us, and we get criticism even for good decisions because we’ve changed the beloved status quo.

For pastors and all other leaders, ignoring pain is leadership leprosy. It may promise the short-term gain of avoiding discomfort, but it has devastating long-term consequences.Making friends with your pain is part of leadership. Our pains tell us we’re moving in the right direction. New pains will always be a part of your life as you continue climbing the ladder to your destiny.

Do you want to be a better leader? Raise the threshold of your pain. Do you want your church to grow? Do you want your business to reach higher goals? Reluctance to face pain is your greatest limitation. There is no growth without change, no change without loss, and no loss without pain.

If you’re not hurting, you’re not leading. Your vision for the future has to be big enough to propel you to face the heartaches and struggles you’ll find along the way. Let me give you a taste of the principles I want to impart to you. When you’re bleeding…

  • Understand and interpret your pain.

  • Clarify the lesson you’re learning.

  • Spend time with leaders who have high pain thresholds.

  • Take care of yourself—mentally, physically, spiritually, relationally.

  • Always be aware of your internal temperature.

  • Listen to your spouse (or best friend).

  • Don’t ask God to raise your pain threshold. He might just answer that prayer!

In the principles and stories in this book I hope you’ll find the courage to do three things:

1. See pain as your greatest teacher. Don’t avoid it. Don’t minimize it. And don’t numb yourself to it. Pain never just goes away. When it’s not resolved, it sinks deep into our minds, creates anxiety in our hearts, causes resentment and depression, and creates tension in our relationships. As the old motor oil ad said, “Pay me now or pay me later.” Face pain sooner and you’ll learn important lessons about God, about yourself, and how to help others grow as they encounter difficulties. Face it later with devastating results.

2. Let your vision drive you. Keep the vision fresh and strong. Don’t let your mind be consumed by your immediate pain and obvious limitations. When you interpret your pain as bigger—more important, more threatening, more comprehensive—than your vision, you’ll redefine your vision down to the threshold of your pain. Focus on the big picture and let your anticipated legacy give you the courage you need to face each day’s troubles. Your vision will continually renew your hope, restore your courage, and refresh your perspective. It will enable you to pay the price to face the pain and take the next step forward.

3. Have a rigorous personal development plan. If you have a plan to grow spiritually, relationally, and professionally, you’ll incorporate difficulties into the learning process. Don’t coast. Read the best authors, spend time with courageous leaders, and craft a plan to sharpen your skills. At many points you’ll bump up against various obstacles—internally and externally, real and perceived. As you face each of them with courage, you’ll raise your pain threshold and you’ll become a better leader. In the process, you’ll see pain as your friend, not your enemy.

As we lead organizations—businesses, nonprofits, and churches—size doesn’t matter as much as another crucial factor. The biggest difference between leaders of large organizations and small organizations isn’t their location, the size of their building, the scope of the vision, the number of staff members, or their talent. In fact, some of the best leaders I’ve ever met have small organizations. But in all my consulting and conferences, I’ve seen a single factor: Leaders of larger organizations have proven they can handle more pain.

I then tell them, “Remember, growth equals change; change equals loss; loss equals pain; so inevitably, growth equals pain. That’s why leadership is both brutal and beautiful. It’s bleedership! It’s brutiful!” If you’re leading, you’re bleeding.It’s human nature for people to try to build themselves up by putting others down, and ministry leaders are very visible, accessible, vulnerable targets.

Contrary to the thinking of many people, stress isn’t the problem. Too much unrelieved stress is the culprit. A little stress brings out the best in us. Our adrenaline flows, and we become more creative, more energetic, and more determined to reach higher than before. But many leaders live without safety valves. They are like pressure cookers with a blocked valve. Every difficult conversation, every hard decision, every failure, every challenging question, and every self-doubt adds to all the ones that have already filled the pot. With each new strain, the addition seems imperceptible, so the person doesn’t do anything about it. As stress rises to the point of explosion or implosion, it seems completely, absolutely normal.

The signs of stress include…

  • Emotional symptoms: feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, isolated, irritable, or moody.

  • Behavioral symptoms: eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little, using medications or alcohol to relax, neglecting normal responsibilities, compulsive behaviors, low resistance to temptation, and not enjoying things that used to bring pleasure.

  • Cognitive symptoms: anxiety, scattered or racing thoughts, inability to concentrate, and lack of judgment.

  • Physical symptoms: stomach problems, tension headaches, odd aches and pains, or the loss of interest in sex.

In the vast majority of cases, burnout is the result of a long series of disappointments, setbacks, and heartaches. Any one of them cannot cause irreparable damage on their own, but the cumulative effect of unrelieved tension, ungrieved losses, and unresolved conflict ultimately exacts a heavy toll.

Perfectionism creates unrealistic expectations, which inevitably produce either nagging self-condemnation or crushing self-doubt. But this isn’t the only thing that can overwhelm leaders. A strained marriage, kids out of control, debt, health problems, unresolved tension, taking care of elderly parents, moral failure, secretiveness, and a hundred other problems can take them beyond discouragement into depression.

Most cases of depression, however, are caused by circumstances outside the body, in other words, unrelieved stress and unresolved anger. One of the classic ways to describe this kind of depression is anger turned inward. This common depression can range from mild to severe.

Virtually all leaders in every field of business or ministry assume that growth will relieve stress, but growth actually increases stress. This misunderstanding adds a large measure of confusion to the considerable pains of leadership.

Leading a growing, changing, dynamic organization requires tremendous courage, wisdom, and tenacity. Value diversity and welcome different perspectives, but be sure to recruit, hire, and train people for at least one level higher than your organization is today.

Exaggerated expectations inevitably lead to disillusionment: a common form of leadership pain.

At some point, we actually welcome pain because the effects are so positive. Those who have embraced pain as a way of life are seldom surprised by suffering, seldom devastated by difficulties, and seldom reactionary when things aren’t what they hoped.

Pain is a surprising substitute teacher in our lives. We’ve gotten used to the way things are in our leadership strategy, thoughts, perceptions, and practice. Pain is the new teacher we want to avoid or get rid of as soon as possible, but in reality it’s the best instructor we could ever have.

Pain teaches us five crucial lessons (among many others):

1. We are weaker, more self-absorbed, and more fragile than we ever imagined.

2. Actually, we don’t have a clue what God is up to.

3. We become more grateful.

4. We find God to be beautiful instead of just useful.

5. We become more tender, more understanding, and more compassionate.

Change is hard, but sometimes it’s absolutely essential. No more excuses, no more delays. It’s time to make the necessary adjustments in our intentional planning and our responses to people and situations. Superficial change may not take much effort, but changing how we think and how we instinctively respond requires discipline, determination, and accountability.

Today, a lot of communication is done through email and texting, but the intent of the heart often doesn’t come through to us digitally. A good principle is to move up at least one medium. If you’d normally send a short text, send a longer email. If you’d regularly email, make a phone call. If you’d usually call, ask for a face-to-face meeting. Relationships are forged on trust, and trust can’t be built when hearts fail to connect. Pride shows itself in two very different forms. Superiority is the assumption that we know better than God how life should work and we’re making it happen. Inferiority is based on the same initial assumption, but with the opposite conclusion: We can’t make it work, so we’re colossal failures. We instantly know that superiority isn’t humility, but sometimes we mistake inferiority for a humble heart. It’s not. A truly humble person doesn’t feel compelled to put himself down. He knows he’s deeply flawed—in fact, he’s brutally honest about his sins and limitations—but he’s also convinced that the grace of God is more wonderful than anything he can imagine. He’s free from the bondage of defending himself or proving himself. He’s beyond the temptations of praise and the ravages of blame.

The way we interpret and respond to pain throws us into a gear that propels us forward or backward. While pain itself is indifferent, it never has an indifferent effect. Pain will shift you one way or the other. We all have a default mode of dealing with pain: fight, flight, or freeze. It’s the way we’ve dealt with conflicts, threats, fears, and loss all our lives, but our default mode may not be a productive, healthy way to handle pain any longer. Now it’s time to change.

Change only happens when our level of desire (or actually desperation) rises above the level of our fears. Pain is a watershed: it can cause us to shrink back into a hole and hope it goes away, or it can galvanize new hopes, new plans, and new passions to learn the lessons it can teach us.

Self-pity isn’t humility. It’s the opposite of humility. It screams for people to look at us and notice how much we’ve suffered. Humility is the bedrock security that doesn’t demand or expect applause or recognition. The essence of genuine humility isn’t thinking less of ourselves but thinking of ourselves less. Pain has the power to crush us, but what’s left in the bottom of the crucible? Is it someone who is angry, resentful, and self-absorbed, or is it someone who has met Christ there, experienced His grace in a new way, and been transformed and freed by the encounter with pain?

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