5 Unhealthy Habits for Leaders to Avoid

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The recently deceased monk Thomas Keating said that to be human is to carry three lifelong needs—the need for approval, the need for security, and the need for control. These needs are not bad; in fact, they are hardwired into our souls by God himself—so that he can meet them personally. It’s when we attempt to engineer our own solutions to these legitimate needs that we create collateral damage to ourselves and to others.

Regardless of how we find ourselves out in front, we’re constantly tempted to use our influence to make ourselves feel good, safe, and strong while we busy ourselves doing things we know to be important. Now factor in that, as pastors and spiritual leaders, we are doing things for God . . . and the opportunity for self-deception in our need-meeting is enormous.

Yet amid that dark diagnosis lies a simple set of self-corrective strategies that have the potential to help us avoid, or at least diminish, the propensity to skew our leadership roles in the direction of self-gratification. Following are five enemies to healthy leadership that we must increasingly learn to manage for our leadership to prove trustworthy. Take a look and see which one speaks most directly to your current condition.

1. Noise.

Whether you consider yourself to be introverted or extroverted, noise finds us all—both the literal noise of TVs, radios, cell phones, traffic, conversation, and the like as well as the psychic noise of the cumulative demands for your attention: advertising, voicemails, emails, texts, to-do lists, unexpected crises, financial pressures . . . this list gets long fast.

Somehow in the midst of carrying the honest, core responsibilities of life and leadership, we must find a way to set boundaries against the noisy clamor of the second-tier discretionary circle of demands and opportunities. We must also carve out highly intentional respites of silence.

Practical Suggestion:

Try the ancient practice of Centering Prayer that is anchored in silence and stillness of mind and body. Start with ten minutes daily. See the Resources tab on my website for details.

2. Hurry.

The convergence of vision, resources, passion, and opportunity (not to mention a hint or two of narcissism) readily create a brew of pathological busyness that can sap our spiritual gravitas in a skinny minute. We too easily accept the pace expected by others as the nonnegotiable cost of leadership without realizing there’s such a high price tag attached.

Jesus challenged the values of his colleagues with words that confront us still: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matt. 16:26, NIV). If we speak the Good News without becoming the Good News, integrity is the first casualty, and the example we set for others turns septic.

Practical Suggestion:

Pray “the Hours” four times a day to intentionally break the tyranny of your schedule. Five minutes will recalibrate your soul and refocus your attention. Again, see the website.

3. Stress.

Is it really true that stress is another requisite of leadership? No, that’s a story you’ve been handed and have accepted. Pressure is unavoidable; stress is elective. Pressure is the force exerted by demands and obligations, internal and external, in the context of our human limitations. Stress is the choice to acquiesce to those voices . . . or even to seek them out because they slake our thirst for approval, security, and control.

When Jesus offers us peace that transcends understanding (Phil. 4:7), he is putting a stake in the ground for a Kingdom value and a Kingdom resource. This is our heritage as spiritual leaders—our birthright. Let’s not sell it as Esau did.

Practical Suggestion:

Keep the Welcome Prayer handy for those times when you feel like you’re succumbing. It’s a quick realignment as you let go of striving to meet the needs of the “big three.”

4. Control.

It comes with the territory of being a leader. Without much warning, exerting constructive influence slips into manipulative efforts to control people and situations. We tell ourselves that it’s “just leadership,” but it’s not. It’s about powering up because we don’t think God’s paying attention and taking care of things.

It’s sneaky, because the instinct to control generally flows out of good intention. But once we attach our wills to it, the effort becomes humancentric and obstructs the flow of the Holy Spirit. When that happens, we find God himself becoming the obstructer . . . in order to train our souls in the way of humility and surrender.

Practical Suggestion:

Use the powerful tool of the Enneagram to better discern and avoid your default coping mechanisms for power and control.

5. Pretense.

Yet one more hazard of being the guy or gal up front is the pressure to publicly portray the ideal leader of your imagination: someone who’s confident, decisive, optimistic, virtuous, etc. So when we inevitably fall short of any of those, well, we fake it. We don’t mean to be disingenuous, but it happens.

Transparency and vulnerability are mission-critical for living and leading successfully for the long run. This requires great intentionality on your part, because as your position of leadership rises, it becomes proportionally less likely that anyone around you will question you . . . or even seriously know the inner workings of your heart.

Practical Suggestion:

The best way to identify the masks we wear with others is . . . to get away from others periodically and encounter God in solitude. A weekend personal retreat each quarter is a best practice for healthy leaders.
Avoiding these soul toxins isn’t easy! I actively work to do so every day of my life and watch vigilantly for their intrusions. And when I receive the grace to choose well, the result is gravitas—a weight of glory in my being that sustains and empowers my leadership, my soul, and my relationships. I hope you’ll join me in recasting the vision for what Christian leadership can look like in today’s world.


Guides for each of the practices mentioned in this article are available for free download at www.Thrive9Solutions.com/resources.


Jerome Daley is a former pastor turned executive coach and author of the recent book release Gravitas: The Monastic Rhythms of Healthy Leadership. Read more about Jerome at www.Thrive9Solutions.com.

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