How filling your leadership tank is will give you the fuel to lead your entire team.
“It’s just a busy season. I promise I’ll be home more when I finish this project.” I apologized to my husband as I raced out the door for an early-morning meeting that would be followed by a full day of ministry and a late-night event.
When I snuck into bed later that evening hoping I wouldn’t wake him, he sighed and quietly said, “It’s not just a season, Jen. It’s you. There’s always another project. There’s always more you need to do. It doesn’t matter what the job is or who your boss is; you always run yourself ragged. You have to make choices that will sustain you.”
As you can imagine, I didn’t receive my husband’s comments well.
And it wasn’t just that I was tired and irritable; it was because he was right. I knew it, but I didn’t want to admit it. I wanted to believe I was the victim of my circumstances. But the hard truth was, I needed to make wiser choices and create healthy boundaries so I could lead better over the long haul. I was touting health and balance to my team—but making excuses for why those same principles didn’t apply to me.
That discussion and many others like it finally caused me to learn what I believe is one of the most important principles of leadership: Lead yourself well to lead others better. It’s the grand “aha” of my leadership journey that’s also become something like beating my head against the proverbial wall. When am I going to finally get this? When will I understand that I must lead myself well before I ever hope to lead and influence others?
Part of our responsibility as leaders is understanding our influence on others. Here’s another hard truth: Leadership is only as strong as the leader. And that is the reason your leadership journey must begin with leading yourself well.
Organizational psychologist and business consultant Mark Freeman defines self-leadership as “the process of influencing ourselves and developing the self-motivation needed to perform.” Leading ourselves well is the starting point of leadership because it challenges us to define our motives for leading. It forces us to dig up what lies deep and undercover—the very foundation of our leadership.
There are many skills that contribute to learning to lead yourself well. But here are the core elements you need to develop self-leadership: character, discipline, and self-awareness.
This is frequently defined as “who you are when no one’s looking.” Ask yourself this: “What kind of person do I really want to be?” Character is the relentless pursuit of the qualities you want to be true of yourself at all times—not just during moments in the leadership spotlight. As people of faith, this means we must pay attention to our spiritual and emotional health. Ask:
- How am I growing in Christ-likeness?
- How is the fruit of the Spirit evident in my life and my leadership?
As leaders, we can’t expect others to do things we’re not modeling ourselves. That’s why discipline is so important to self-leadership. Discipline begins with your commitment to be an initiator and to become known as someone others can count on to get things done. Another way to consider discipline is this: It’s demonstrating an ability to set goals and meet them in all areas of your life, such as personal, professional, relational, and recreational.
One common and important discipline for leaders is a commitment to developing their skills. Disciplined people are fanatic lifelong learners and ferocious readers, and they insist on surrounding themselves with mentors to learn from. Ask:
- What’s my concrete plan for developing my skills?
- How well am I setting goals and meeting them in all areas of my life? How can I improve?
Good self-leadership is impossible without good self-awareness. Self-awareness is the emotional intelligence you need to understand how and why you react or respond the way you do in a situation, and then to understand how your behavior impacts those around you. Self-aware leaders know their strengths and weaknesses. They don’t make excuses for them, and they don’t ignore them. They own them and seek to grow by finding good mentors and counselors. Self-aware leaders also always evaluate what they need to “own” in every situation. Whether it’s a successful event or an unexpected problem, they’re seeking to first take ownership of how they contributed and then lead their team on to the next step.
Parker Palmer, writer, speaker, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal in Seattle, Washington, reminds us that “Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of ‘hidden wholeness’ because they have been there and know the way.”
- What are areas I’m weak in? strong in?
- How do my strengths and weaknesses affect others on my team? What can I do to grow the positive impacts and correct the negative impacts?
The Self-Leadership Process
Self-leadership is the hard work that happens behind the scenes. It’s the effort that’ll sustain you as a leader. It’s an ongoing process that great leaders are committed to because they know and understand how their influence impacts the people they lead.
In ministry leadership, many of the people we lead are volunteers and therefore follow out of a passion for the vision. That passion will quickly wane under a poor leader—all the more reason why the commitment to being a leader people want to follow is essential.
This journey of self-leadership isn’t easy, but it’s part of what equips you to be the leader God is calling you to be. As you recruit, develop, and train others, don’t become so busy doing ministry that you neglect the self-leadership you need to sustain you. Your God-given leadership strengths are a gift to you and to others. We need you to thrive so you can help others thrive. Lead yourself well so you can lead others better.
Jenni Catron served as the executive director of Cross Point Church, a multisite church in Nashville, Tennessee, for nine years. She is an author, speaker, and leadership expert.
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