How to Pull out of a Leadership Lull

Every leader at some time in his or her leadership will face multiple leadership lulls. We have a down Sunday. A new ministry doesn’t take off. Someone expresses disappointment in us or criticizes us. A seasonal program doesn’t bring as many new people as we expected. Sometimes those lulls can push us into a downward spiral from which it becomes difficult to pull out. Understanding what goes on in our brains offers insight on how to pull out of a leadership lull.

spiral downward

Our brains actually contribute to downward cycles. When we feel disappointed, a brain chemical that helps us feel positive, dopamine, drops which causes us to operate more from an emotional mode rather than from a thoughtful mode driven by the thinking part of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex). This decreases our performance because we enjoy our ministry less which in turn leads to decreased confidence. The spiral continues downward as our decreased confidence dampens our mood which further drops dopamine.

When we face such scenarios, five simple steps can help us move from a downward spiral to an upward spiral. God created our brains to provide doses of dopamine which makes for greater well being in our leadership and in our lives. This in turn can improve our performance which in turn opens us to fresh spiritual and leadership insight. As a result we receive a confidence boost about the future. Thus, we move from a downward spiral into an upward one.

Consider these five ideas to try the next time you face a leadership lull.

  1. Take some time to read a few uplifting portions of Scripture about hope, God’s grace, and joy.
  2. Write down the expectation that was unmet. Was it unrealistic given the current circumstances? Can you adjust the expectation downward to bring it more in line with current circumstances or with what God is telling you?
  3. Think of something unusual or outside-the box that could apply to this situation. Is there a unique or novel way to frame or modify your expectation? Novelty helps boost brain chemicals that help us gain perspective and think more clearly.
  4. Take a small step to accomplish something related to this goal or focus on another goal. Make the goal one that you can accomplish rather easily and quickly. After you do, take another small step. Each successive accomplishment will boost your confidence as it boosts dopamine. Accomplishing even small tasks from our daily to-do list has been proven to boost dopamine.
  5. Call a friend you trust who can help you think through the situation. Often we simply need fresh perspective from an objective friend.

The next time you face a leadership lull, try one or two of these simple steps and see what happens.

What have you found that helps pull you out of a leadership lull?

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Are you a Mary or a Martha Leader? Take this Quiz to Find Out

One of the most famous stories in the Bible describes Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. The story contrasts two kinds of living and leading: one a frenzied, driven style shown by Martha and the other a reflective style seen in Mary whom Jesus commended. In this post I include a personal inventory a leader can take to discover his or her leadership style.

leadership

Greg McKeown who authored the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less captures Mary’s style with his definition of what he calls an essentialist.

“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless (p. 7).”

I’ve included Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit below and follow it with a 10 statement self-assessment you can take to discover which of the two styles your leadership is most like. I’ve based the assessment from insights I drew from the story.

Luke 10:38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41  “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Martha or Mary Leadership Style Inventory

As you take the assessment, grade yourself in this way.

  • If the statement is never true of you, give yourself a ‘0.’
  • If it’s sometimes true of you, give yourself a ‘1.’
  • If it’s often true of you, give yourself a ‘2.’
  1. The urgent often crowds out the important. 
    • Martha’s busyness in the kitchen caused her to miss what was most important.
  1. Projects often take precedence over people. 
    • Martha’s project and busyness to make a meal trumped being present with Jesus. Author and pastor Chuck Swindoll writes, “Busyness rapes relationships. It substitutes shallow frenzy for deep friendship. It promises satisfying dreams, but delivers hollow nightmares. It feeds the ego, but starves the inner man. It fills the calendar, but fractures the family. It cultivates a program, but plows under priorities. (Killing Giants, Pulling Thorns, p. 79)
  1. Everything has to be done perfectly.
    • A simple meal would have sufficed for Jesus, but not for Martha.
  1. You feel a nagging feeling of oughtness.
    • Martha had to attend to the details that had to be made.
  1. You often show insensitivity and impatience toward other people.
    • Martha yelled at Jesus for not sending Mary into the kitchen to help.
  1. You feel resentment about others who aren’t as driven.
    • The story reveals Martha’s resentment toward Mary’s lack of helping her prepare the meal.
  1. You convey a demanding spirit with others.
    • Martha demanded that Jesus tell Mary to help.
  1. You have difficulty concentrating on one thing at a time.
    • The scripture uses the word worried to describe an agitated state of mind which certainly inhibited her ability to concentrate and focus.
  1. Delays easily frustrate you.
    • Ditto what I’ve written above about Martha’s response.
  1. You often experience sunset fatigue.
    • This term sunset fatigue comes from John Ortberg. He describes it as coming to the end of your day with no energy for important things like being present for your family. Martha must have been exhausted after Jesus’ visit, not because of Jesus’ presence, but because of her misplaced priorities.

How did you do? Here’s the scoring key.

  • If you scored 0-3, you’re in good shape.
  • If you scored 4-6, take 2 baby aspirin.
  • If you scored 7-12, take 2 extra strength Tylenol.
  • If you scored 12-20, you might need Valium.

If you found yourself more like Martha than Mary, consider three ways to counter a Martha driven leadership style.

  1. Slow down your pace of leadership. Once when the pace got too frenetic, Jesus told his disciples to get away to a quiet place and rest (Mark 6.31). Slowing down involves not just slowing our physical pace, but our mental pace as well.
  2. Reflect more often to discover what is most essential. Martha was in such a rush that she failed to reflect upon what was most important at that very moment, being with Jesus. Jesus preferred her company over her service at that moment. Life will not automatically arrange itself into the correct priorities. We must regularly stop to reflect so we don’t miss what’s most important.
    • McKeown tells a story in his book that illustrates this idea. He tells about a man whose three-year-old daughter died. In his grief the dad put together a video of her short life. But as he went through all of his home videos he realized something was missing. He had taken video of every outing they had gone on and every trip they had taken. He had lots of footage. That wasn’t the problem. He then realized that while he had plenty of footage of the places they had gone— the sights they had seen, the views they had enjoyed, the meals they had eaten, and the landmarks they had visited— he had almost no close-up footage of his daughter herself. He had been so busy recording the surroundings he had failed to record what was essential (p. 236).

  1. Put first things first. Jesus told Martha that “One thing is needed.” Sometimes we simply must narrow our choices to put first things first. The word priority kept its singular focus until the 1900’s when we pluralized the term. We often need to step back from the pace of life and leadership to make sure we have prioritized what is truly most important, keeping ourselves moored to Jesus as we lead.

As Jesus said, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

What has helped you become more of a Mary leader?

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10 Signs a Leader May Need a New Challenge

One of my favorite writers is Liz Wiseman. She has spoken at the Willow Creek Summit a couple of times. She has authored these two great books that I love… Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter and Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. In one chapter of Rookie Smarts she lists 10 signs that might indicate you need a new challenge. As you read these, ask yourself if they reflect your current world.

goldfish jumping out of the water

10 Signs a Leader Needs a New Challenge*

As you read each one, mentally check the ones true of you.

  1. Things are running smoothly.
  2. You are consistently getting positive feedback.
  3. Your brain doesn’t have to work hard to be successful.
  4. You don’t prepare for meetings because you already know the answers.
  5. You’ve stopped learning something new every day.
  6. You are busy but bored.
  7. You’re taking longer showers in the morning and you take your time getting to work.
  8. It makes you tired to think you could be doing the same job a year from now.
  9. You’ve become increasingly negative and can’t identify why.
  10. You’re spending a lot of time trying to fix other people’s problems.

So how many did you check?

Liz says that two or more of these experiences indicate you need to, ‘renew your rookie smarts,’ (approach your ministry with a beginner’s mindset to become a better learner). And if three or more are true of you, you need a new challenge.

When I read this list, it made me think deeply about how I approach my role as a lead pastor.

  • I don’t want to get stuck on cruise control because things may go well.
  • I don’t want to look back one day and realize I squandered God-given opportunities because I was taking the path of least resistance.
  • I don’t want to get too comfortable by using what worked well before.
  • I don’t want to become so drained by other people’s problems that I have little energy to think into the future.
  • I do want to approach each day from a possibility mindset, how God can use me to make an eternal Kingdom impact.

As you lead, guard against becoming complacent and comfortable.

Relish your wins.

Enjoy the successes God gives you.

Take joy in God’s pleasure in you.

And ponder and heed these words of Joshua.

Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it. Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do. (Josh. 1.8, NLT)

What would you add to this list that might indicate a leader needs a new challenge?

*list from Wiseman, Liz. Rookie Smarts (Enhanced Edition): Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work (p. 165). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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Rejection: How if Affects Leaders

Disapproval and rejection can sting and wound. We’ve all felt it. What do we do when important people in our lives (or even those that we don’t deem important) reject us? How do we respond as did Jesus when he was rejected and scorned? In this post I unpack this painful thing called rejection.

One depressed person stands lonely, apart from the group

Years ago I experienced deep disapproval and rejection from some key church leaders in the church I was in. Essentially they told me that I wasn’t a good leader nor could I inspire people when I preached God’s Word. I was devastated and the effects lingered for months. At the time I didn’t process this rejection well. In retrospect, however, I now understand why this hurt so much and what to do about it.

God created our bodies and our mental command and control center, our brains, with two overall systems that profoundly impact how we think and feel. Our refleXive system (think X-system) is the one that acts without thinking. When it controls, our emotions often take over. The other system, our refleCtive system (think C-system) is the one that helps us think clearly and biblically when our emotions want us to do otherwise. When our X-system controls, we become highly emotional and reactive which dampens our C-system’s ability to think clearly and objectively. However, when we submit our C-system to the Holy Spirit, we are able to think more in line with the Apostle Paul’s command in Philippeans 4.8.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

Because I failed to appropriately filter their disapproval with the mind of Christ (His thoughts and perspective), my response prompted my brain to release neurochemicals, called catecholamines, that revved up my X-system. This in turn further diminished my ability to think and lead effectively in these three ways.

  • Mental exhaustion: My brain’s check engine light was always on. One part of our brain (the anterior cingulate cortex) senses inconsistencies we detect in verbal or non-verbal messages we get from others. Because those leaders often gave me mixed messages about my performance (you are a great guy… you don’t inspire people), that part of my brain was constantly ‘on.’ I become mentally exhausted which bred even more anxiety about the situation.
  • Easily defensive: My brain’s impulse control brake pads wore thin. I’m usually able to control my emotions and avoid defensiveness. However, because the stress had tired my brain and body, the part of my brain that helps control impulses and emotions (the ventral lateral pre-frontal cortex) had little ‘brake pad’ left. As a result, I was not able to carry on objective conversations about their perspective, which would have helped. Instead, I became defensive, didn’t listen well to their viewpoints, and reacted to small irritations at home.
  • Inability to concentrate: My brain’s mental etch-a-sketch could not hold a creative thought long without losing it. An important part of the brain (the dorsal lateral pre-frontal cortex) gives us the ability to plan, hold items in memory, and think abstractly. However, I could barely concentrate which impacted my ability to think creatively when preparing a sermon or when planning a new initiative. My brain felt like an etch-a-sketch constantly being shaken causing the picture on it to quickly dissolve. I often defaulted to mindless activities such as looking at Facebook several times daily rather than focusing on the more important mind-taxing tasks ministry demanded.

When leaders feel rejected, these internal processes will occur unless with the Spirit’s power we proactively take action to counter them. In my next post I discuss how we can counter these tendencies when we feel rejected.

When others have rejected you, what negative consequences have you seen in your leadership?


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Not Motivated? Try a Simple Pleasure.

Every day we need something called motivation to accomplish what we need to do that day. Some tasks come with built-in motivation. I don’t need much motivation to eat thin-crust Canadian bacon pizza or watch Hawaii Five-O (I admit I’m hooked). But many tasks feel daunting and don’t look enticing, like doing your taxes, answering a bazillion emails after vacation, or fixing the toilet leak (I hate handyman chores). Yet those tasks need to be done. I’ve found it’s easy to get distracted and waste time when I’m faced with one of those tasks. So, how can we get motivated?

frog-and-carrot-motivation

Simple: get your brain working for you. Deep in our brain lie some structures called the basal ganglia. Within those structures is our pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens. When we do something that feels pleasurable, our brain gives a shot of a feel good neurotransmitter called dopamine. So whether you eat a candy bar or check off an important ‘to-do’ for the day, this brain chemical gives you a pleasant feeling. When that happens, we become a bit more motivated for the next task.

So the next time you find yourself unmotivated and procrastinating to avoid an unpleasant task, take 5 minutes to do something that brings you pleasure such as one of these.

  • Listen to some good music.
  • Eat a candy bar (or better yet, eat a handful of blueberries).
  • Read a few jokes and laugh.
  • Take a brisk walk.
  • Call a friend.
  • Read an uplifting Psalm form Scripture.

What are some ideas you have about getting motivated?

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