Should you get Closer to your Critics?

What’s happening in this picture? I used this in a recent talk and asked the church audience to give me their answers. Their responses included… two people are angry, they are upset, they aren’t talking, they disagree about something. One lady came up to me afterwards and said, “I think it means that she was right and he was wrong.” I chuckled at that one. In a phrase, this is what I see: two people, for whatever reasons, have cut themselves off from each other, both physical and emotionally. Leaders do that sometimes to their critics and naysayers. Here’s why that’s not a good idea and how we can stay closer to our critics.

emotional cut off copy

One of the greatest survival stories ever began in August 1914 when the famous explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, sailed with twenty-seven men on his ship the Endurance. He planned to lead the first expedition across the Antarctic continent. However, his ship got stuck in heavy sea ice which eventually crushed it off the coast of Antarctica. Stuck on four feet of ice over mile-deep water, Shackleton and his crew survived 635 days and nights with poor shelter and limited rations in some of the harshest conditions known. Amazingly, on foot and by small boat he eventually got to safety and then rescued his entire crew. You can read the full story in the great book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.

What was the key to this amazing story of survival? It was a quality of Shackleton’s leadership presence. The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured one of the most important characteristics Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival. He wrote in his diary, “Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly (my emphasis) that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; he never lost his optimism.”[1]

Shackleton illustrates a quality I believe leaders need: to maintain a calm presence with their critics, dissidents, and naysayers. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and potential troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

It’s a counter intuitive approach. Staying reasonably and calmly connected is the better way to lower the relational tension and personal anxiety we feel toward our critics. It can improve those relationships and it doesn’t mean that we become their best friends or that we let them run over us.

So, who in your ministry is your biggest detractor today?

  • An old-timer who has been in the church 40 years?
  • A board member who seems to always take a contrarian view?
  • A staff person who isn’t performing?
  • A volunteer who doesn’t like you?
  • Or?

Shackleton’s secret was that instead of pushing away his detractors he actually drew closer to those men. He made two of his troublmakers his bunkmates in his tent. And when he left on a lifeboat to assemble a rescue party, he took 3 men whom he felt might cause trouble with the men who were left.

Here’s what I suggest to maintain a calm presence with such people.

  1. Recognize the power of emotional and relational force fields.
    • Just as magnets have force fields around them, leaders carry emotional force fields as well. Our demeanor, words, and vocal tone all carry power. We can draw people to us or push them away (like the same poles on a magnet do). Great leaders monitor and control their emotional force fields because others will sense our tone. It’s a social neuroscience concept theory of mind that states that we can somewhat intuit the emotions, intentions, and thoughts of another. Although it’s not mind reading and we often misread other’s intentions, it is what some call our sixth sense. Great leaders recognize this and create welcoming rather than repelling emotional force fields, especially toward their critics.
  2. Take the initiative.
    • With our critics and naysayers, it’s easier to keep our distance even though we know relationship tension exists. A good leader, however, will take the initiative to reach out to a critic, even though he’d prefer that if, “they have a problem, they should come to me.” A simple conversation like this can potentially ease tension… “Hi, John, just wanted to check in with you. How are things going?”
  3. Practice empathy.
    • Empathy is the ability to step inside another’s shoes and see life from their perspective. Try stepping into your critic’s shoes to see you from their perspective. You might gain new understanding about what lies at the root of their resistance. Daniel Golemen (the emotional intelligence guy) believes there are three kinds of empathy. I describe them in this way: knowing empathy (we cognitively know our critic’s distress), feeling empathy (we feel our critic’s distress), and doing empathy (we are moved to help relieve our critic’s distress). Which kind do you need to express toward your critic?
  4. Become more self-aware.
    • Related to number 1 above, becoming more self aware refers to recognizing the power of emotional contagion, the concept that explains how others catch our emotions. If you act distant or cold toward someone, they tend to mirror your behavior. If you act friendly and open toward others, they tend to respond in like kind. Neuroscientists have discovered a unique set of brain cells called mirror neurons that play a role in emotional contagion. These brain circuits prompt us to subconsciously mimic goal directed behavior we see in others. Ask yourself how you come across to your critics. Would you want them to relate to you as you do to them?

Again, who’s the person in your life or ministry that criticizes or hassles you the most? Which of these four suggestions if applied might make that relationship better?

Even though we may not feel we have the strength or emotional reserve to relate in a positive way toward our critics, the Bible tells us that every follower of Jesus has the Holy Spirit. He promises to give us everything we need to relate in wise and healthy ways toward our critics. The Apostle Paul reminded us of this when he wrote these words.

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you (Rom. 8.9, NIV)

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[1] Marcuson, Leaders Who Last, kindleKloc. 1117.

6 Dangers of Self-appointed Leaders

Malcolm Webber is one of my favorite leaders of leaders. With a PhD and over 20 books on leadership to his credit, he insightfully describes the dangers of a self-appointed leader in his book Healthy Leaders. He draws insight from a self-appointed leader named Korah described in the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapters 16-17. I’ve paraphrased these dangers below and contrasted them with 6 qualities of true God-appointed leaders.

Fashion man pointing at himself

Self-appointed leaders…

  1. resist existing spiritual authority (Nm 16.2).
  2. … criticize and question existing leaders (Nm 16.1).
  3. … accuse other leaders of what they themselves are guilty (Nm 16.3).
  4. aren’t satisfied with the positions they hold. They push for greater authority and position (Nm 16.10).
  5. murmur against leadership that God has appointed (Nm 16.11).
  6. ultimately face God’s judgement (Nm 16.31-35).

God-appointed leaders…

  1. willing submit to existing authority (Daniel’s repeated examples).
  2. when issues and questions arise, they appropriately appeal up the chain of command and go to their leaders in private and in person (Mt 18.15)
  3. avoid a judgmental spirit (Mt 7.1-5)
  4. wait on God to promote them (Paul and Moses spent years in obscurity before rising to significant leadership)
  5. only speak well of their leaders whether to their faces, behind their backs, or in the presence of others (Eph 4.29).
  6. lead with the eternal goal in mind to hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt 25.21).

Of these two lists, which one most characterizes your leadership? If the first list does, what changes do you need to make so that list two most characterizes you?

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5 Ways to Become a “Bounce Back” Leader

In my previous post I suggested 5 indicators that point to leaders who quickly bounce back from adversity, setbacks, and disappointment. I used the phrase “resilient leaders” to describe them. Since every leader will face difficulty, what can we do to become more resilient? Consider these practical steps you can apply in your life and leadership to ‘bounce back’ more quickly.

Power of LIfe
  1. Accept that fact that you will face setbacks.  While not constantly looking over your shoulder, remind yourself that with leadership comes challenge and hardship. So when difficulties do come, you won’t be blindsided by them. Welcome them as a teacher to help you learn more about yourself.
  2. Develop the discipline of ‘metacognition.’ Metacognition is a fancy term for, ‘thinking about what you are thinking about.’ Often when faced with a difficulty we get caught up in our negative self-talk, the thought stream in our minds that all is gloom and doom. However, by monitoring our thoughts we can catch this negativity before it overwhelms our thinking and emotions. Read more here about the Monday morning blues and metacognition.
  3. Give yourself some extra TLC. Often when we face setbacks we drive ourselves even more to fix the problem. Certainly when a “dam” has broken, we must go into emergency mode and increase our efforts. Often, however, setbacks don’t require our immediate, extra attention. In many cases we actually need more emotional reserve and thinking clarity to wisely tackle the issue. These come only when we slow down, tend to our soul, and take care of our body. Extra time off and more rest might actually be your best choice. Remember, Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
  4. Stay in community. When hurt, it’s easy to withdraw to lick out wounds. However, during those times we need safe friends with whom we can process our pain. In this post I describe what to look for in a safe friend.
  5. Remember how emotional contagion works. Emotional contagion describes the process by which people ‘catch’ our emotions, both good and bad. When your church or organization faces a setback, make sure your body language, tone of voice, and words don’t send a defeatist message to your team. That can diminish team productivity and morale. While keeping authentic about your disappointment, communicate a hopeful, God-focused tone. They will catch the attitude you intentionally or unintentionally telegraph.

When you’ve faced a setback in your ministry, what has helped you bounce back more quickly?

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Are you Leading Well? 13 Questions to Ask Yourself

A year ago I began a new adventure…leading a new church in a new country. I accepted the lead pastor role at a great church in Canada, West Park Church in London, Ontario. This church is filled with great people committed to God and the cause of Christ. I’m loving my time here and although I’ve faced some challenges this first year, overall it has been a great year. Before I even started, I spent three weeks preparing for my new ministry and I learned these 4 keys necessary to start well and sustain healthy ministry. I’ve also included 13 questions that help us determine how well we are leading.

Leadership

I use the acronym PALM to illustrate these 4 simple keys. It describes four practices that not only make a new transition go smoother, but represent leadership priorities I recommend every good leader embrace whether or not he or she is new to a ministry role. I’ll briefly explain them and then pose some questions to help you evaluate how well you are embodying these principles.

Prioritize family and self care. This concept simply means that to lead well, we must lead ourselves and our families well. I once heard Chuck Swindoll say that a healthy ministry flows out of a healthy marriage.

  • Key questions to ask.
  1. How would your spouse or kids say you are doing in keeping family a priority?
  2. How often do you take a day off when you truly disconnect from your leadership role?
  3. Are you getting enough sleep and exercise?
  4. Are you saying ‘no’ enough to demands people try to place on your time that you know if you said ‘yes’ would not further your mission?

Avidly over-communicate. This concept implies that leaders must intentionally use multiple means to keep theirs churches and teams informed of what’s happening.

  • Key questions to ask.
  1. Do you have an intentional process you use to communicate to others progress in achieving your goals and key initiatives?
  2. How many tools do you use to communicate? Or, do you count on one method and hope it’s successful?
  3. How often do you repeat your church’s overall purpose and objectives?

Listen and learn. This idea embodies the principle that good leaders are learners and learning happens when we assume a listening posture. 

  • Key questions to ask.
  1. In meetings how much talking do you do? Are you mostly telling or asking questions and listening?
  2. When you meet new people, do you ask about their lives or do you talk about yourself?
  3. When others are talking to you, how often do you mentally check out as you prepare your response?

Manage change wisely. For any church or ministry to make a Kingdom difference it requires that we effect change. But change for change’s sake seldom moves us forward. However, wisely managed and needed change will make a Kingdom difference.

  • Key questions to ask.
  1. How often do you include in the conversation about a potential change those who would be affected by such a change?
  2. When you bring change, how often do you evaluate after the change to learn how well it went?
  3. What changes need to be made now in your setting and what are you doing to prepare your church or team for the change?

 Leadership brings leaders great fulfillment, especially when we lead well. Consider how you might apply these 4 keys in the PALM acrostic to your leadership setting.

What other keys have you discovered that make for successful leadership?

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The Moody Leader: 4 Reasons NOT to be One

Churches, non-profits, and businesses require emotionally healthy and aware leaders. While competency, good management skills, and vision casting ability certainly matter, research now shows that emotional intelligence (EQ) profoundly impacts leadership effectiveness as well. One aspect of EQ, knowing our emotions, reinforces the idea that leaders must never be moody ones. Neuroscience gives us four reasons why.

Range of Emotions - Mad to Happy

Before I list the reasons why leaders should never be moody, here’s how I describe a moody leader.

  • Employes and followers aren’t sure what kind of mood he will bring to work.
  • When he feels anxious, which is often, he’s short with others and demanding.
  • He thrives on drama in the workplace.
  • He lacks self-awareness of how he comes across when he’s emotional.

So, here’s how neuroscience informs us about the downsides of moody leaders.

  1. Emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is the term that describes how others catch our emotions. If a leader is often moody, sour, or negative, that attitude will permeate that organization or church. I was once treated very rudely when I ordered a hamburger and fries at a hamburger joint. A few minutes later the cook yelled at the person who waited on me. At that point I realized who actually waited on me, the owner of the restaurant. His employees had ‘caught’ his bad attitude. I never returned.
  2. Uncertainty. Our brains don’t like uncertainty. When we sense it (“I wonder what kind of mood the boss will be in today?”), it sets up an avoidance response in us. Or flight-fight-freeze-appease center (the limbic system) ratchets up which results in fear, less team cooperation, and less creativity in the workplace. Moody leaders infuse uncertainty into the workplace. (My blog here describes our brain’s 3 leadership systems we should be aware of.)
  3. Mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a specialized group of brain cells that cause us to mimic goal directed behavior. For example, when we see someone yawn or smile, we tend to subconsciously yawn or smile. But such behavior is not limited to yawns and smiles. If a leader constantly frowns or furrows his brow in a disapproving way, it sets a negative tone in the workplace or the church. Yet, genuine smiles can do the opposite by encouraging a positive, productive work setting.
  4. Theory of mind. Theory of mind is a concept that says our minds can somewhat intuit what others are thinking and feeling. Although not mind reading, the process called mentalizing, helps us understand another’s mental states. Mentalizing helps us imagine and interpret their needs, desires, feelings, and goals. When a leader brings moodiness into relationships, he inadvertently leads others to intuit negative intents, purposes, or desires which that leader probably does not want his followers or employees to think or believe.

So you can see that moody leadership does not contribute to healthy teams, trust, creativity, leadership effectiveness, or cooperation.

If you think you may be a moody leader, ask someone who truly cares about you to gently remind you when you start acting moody.

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