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How to Deal When Leadership Gets Lonely

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Ever wonder how you’ll make it through the next year of ministry? Or month? Or week? Here’s how to lead when you’re traveling through personal darkness.

A friend of mine is an international speaker, and he often jokes about not having a “real” job. I first met him some 20 years ago, and he impressed me so much that I decided I, too, wanted to be a professional speaker. I mean, how difficult could it be to open your mouth and flap your lips in front of hundreds of people? He made it look so easy, yet I discovered how much work was really involved — and how looks can be deceiving.

My friend spent years refining his speeches, polishing his programs, and practicing to the point of near perfection. And no matter what was going on in his life or how he felt, the show went on. Through the years, I’ve held many roles in leadership and did develop a speaking career, although nothing that would hold a candle to my friend’s accomplishments. Whether I was speaking on stage or leading a team, I realized that the lights were on and everyone was watching… no matter what. When you’re a leader, you’re a leader 24/7.

You probably feel the same way in your role… it looked so easy! Then you jumped into the deep end of the children’s ministry pool and have been treading water ever since, trying desperately not to drown. Welcome to the world of leadership!

The Leader’s Reality

It’s not just your imagination: Everyone really is looking to you as a leader. And it can feel as though you don’t have the latitude for the occasional bad day or room for a personal issue. And let’s be honest, our culture expects leaders to keep their personal lives at home because they have no place at work. The reality is that our work comes home with us — and our problems at home come to work. We’re human and we all have issues like everyone else. But leaders are expected to simply press on through their trials. Why?

The Leader’s Creed

A scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan with Tom Hanks resonates with leaders. It’s the one where the Captain, played by Hanks, breaks down after years of stuffing emotions from the awful war — the things he’s seen, the things he’s done. He finally falls apart… all alone. A few scenes earlier, the Captain’s troops had asked him why they never saw him in a bad mood. He responded by saying that leaders don’t complain down the line — they go up the chain of command. But what he didn’t mention was that those up the chain of command really don’t want to hear about it. So the reality, as we see so dramatically played out on film, is that leaders often have no one to turn to; they tend to suffer silently and alone.

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Your leadership role challenges you every day as you struggle to balance guiding and directing team members while ministering and mentoring a wide scope of people of varying ages. On top of that, you likely have your own responsibilities to attend to. So what happens when your personal life hits a speed bump… or completely and utterly crashes?

I’ve been there, and I want you to know I understand how isolating it feels. But I also want to suggest this: “I’ve met the enemy, and it is me.” Unfortunately, the very things that make us good leaders (strong will, determination, dedication to serving, and so on) can also make us lousy at dealing with personal issues. We “suck it up,” take it like a pro, and press on — or at least that’s what I did, because I really didn’t know any other way.

The Lonely Road

During my dark days (I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I was going through almost all major stress factors at once while trying to maintain my career), I spent a lot of energy putting on my happy face. In fact, most people had no clue as to what I was going through. Sadly, I thought that was a badge of honor at the time. The less people knew about how horrible my life really was, the more in control I thought I was. In addition, I think I used leading as a way to hide from my personal life. We can often pour ourselves into our role in hopes that “home stuff” will sort itself out. Then days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. When we avoid the hard stuff, time doesn’t heal — it only compounds the fracture.

But how does one learn to cope? My parents certainly didn’t sit me down and say, “Hey, honey, when your life falls apart one day, here’s how to get through it.” I don’t think I’m alone in that. Our education and training doesn’t address it either, so we have to make smarter decisions. And by doing so, we actually become better leaders.

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