The Lonely Road

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How to lead when you’re traveling through personal
darkness.

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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

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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.

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.

The Journey Through Darkness

I discovered that by not sharing with at least one close,
trusted friend, I was preventing God from working through my
trials. I believe God uses our prayers and others’ prayers to
accomplish his will. And I don’t believe that God desires his
servants to burn up in a ball of flames. We’re no good to God’s
kingdom and purposes when we’re so dry we have nothing left to
give.

How did I learn this? When my life unraveled to the point where
I could no longer hide it (and believe me, yours will too if you
don’t address it), a friend of mine called me and read me the riot
act. She said I’d denied her the ability to be a friend and sister
in Christ. She couldn’t pray for what she didn’t know. Ouch.

That’s not to say you should dump your burdens on your team. But
you must be wise and seek the ear of someone who cares. Just having
someone listen to your challenges can make a difference in the
weight of your troubles. It may not change them, but knowing
someone is praying for you will give you that extra strength to
keep going — which you must do. Jesus is the best example of a
leader that I know, and even he was overwhelmed minutes before
fulfilling his purpose. But nonetheless, he pressed on toward the
goal — but not without first asking his Father for help.

• Find a friend. Select someone you trust who has your best
interests in mind — and who isn’t on your team. This person may be
your spouse, a peer, family member, or small group friend. Don’t
exclude counselors and consultants; they can be excellent sounding
boards with objective insights and feedback. And, pray. Rely on God
as your closest friend and adviser. In the midst of darkness, that
may be easier said than done. But know this: God is nearer to you
in your darkest hour than you can imagine. Rely on and draw
strength from him.

• Keep a journal. It takes a lot of energy to press on through
dark days. It isn’t easy; I won’t lie to you. But one thing that’s
often helped me is journaling. Oh my, I would never want a single
person to read some of my entries because they’re raw, but I’ve
learned that God can handle it… and he loves me anyway.
Journaling has helped me release my anger, shed my doubts, and let
go of my fears. And after I do, all that remains is God’s light and
with it, peace. Granted, my peace may only last until the next
crisis, but I’ll take what I can get.

The Facts About Stress

Personal crises of all shapes, colors, and sizes can be boiled
down to one word: stress. It’s a small word, but it packs one
powerful punch. Whether you’re moving into a new home, balancing
the kids’ schedules, experiencing marital problems, dealing with a
death in the family or — fill in the blank — you’re experiencing
stress. And our bodies respond to all stresses, whether they’re
happy occasions, negative situations, or simply realities of life
such as the alarm clock or deadlines. A chemical reaction kicks in
when we’re excited, bothered, worried, or anxious. And when we
don’t do anything to alleviate this reaction, our bodies get sick
from the inside out.

• Know the symptoms. Restless nights, headaches, backaches,
stomachaches, and a myriad of other ailments can be signs that you
aren’t managing your stress in a healthy manner. And if you find
yourself in search of food, alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to help
you cope, you could be on the brink of burnout. To continue to be
an effective leader, you must carve out time for yourself. Even if
it’s only 10 minutes to sit and breathe, it can make a difference.
Jesus took time away from his disciples because he knew he needed
to fill his own cup to pour himself into others. It isn’t being
selfish; it’s being prudent.

• Know the prevention. Just as I prepare each day by looking at
my to-do list, I now include evaluating my life stresses. Ask
yourself, What’s going on with my spouse? kids? friends? family?
church? By determining what’ll take energy from you today, you can
plan accordingly to include activities that’ll fill your cup. These
activities are different for everyone. For me, I need two things:
lots of exercise and plenty of sleep. When those two things are in
balance, I stand a chance of properly handling my stress. If either
is forsaken, I’m weakened and vulnerable to my stress, and it may
rear its ugly head.

An Opportunity to Shine

Remember, all eyes are on you. Rather than a burden, this
reality provides an opportunity to be a great example to those you
serve with. As a society we’re slowly improving when it comes to
recognizing that we need balance — but we still generally live in
ways that are out of balance. People need leaders who are striving
to balance life. You don’t have to be perfect, but by practicing
stress and life management, you can have a more positive impact on
people, be a greater influence, and hopefully keep your sanity and
health in the process.


Lorraine Bossé-Smith (conceptoneonline.com) is the author
of
Leveraging Your Leadership Style and I Want My
Life Back along with five other books.

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