Is this the Holy Grail for Effective Leadership?

The term ‘holy grail’ is often used to describe something highly sought after or earnestly pursued. Whether you are a leader in a ministry environment or a business environment, great leaders are always looking for ways to lead better. But is there such thing as a ‘holy grail’ for effective leadership? Probably not. However, recently I learned a concept that although it may not qualify as THE ultimate key for effective leadership, it probably should be a competency leaders should develop. It’s called a growth mindset.

Chart depicting the leadership style of transformational leaders

Growth mindset versus fixed mindset…

I recently read Thanks for the Feedback by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone. I highly recommend the book. In one section they unpack a concept related to our personal identity: growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. Simply put, leaders with fixed mindsets believe that their abilities and traits are fixed and finished. Leaders with a growth mindset believe that they are capable of constantly growing and changing.

Heen and Stone write about Professor Carol Dweck’s study at Stanford University on how children cope with failure. She used a puzzle experiment with kids. She had a group of kids engage with progressively harder and harder puzzles. Some kids gave up. And to her surprise, some kids actually became more engaged the more difficult the puzzles became.

After these experiments she talked with the kids. Kids who gave up felt that the harder puzzles made them look dumb. However, the kids who persisted believed that the harder puzzles made them get better at solving puzzles and said that their experience was actually fun.

Neither interest nor aptitude made a difference in their responses. For the kids who stopped, they assumed that their skill at solving puzzles was a fixed trait. The kids who persisted felt that their puzzle-solving ability was a flexible trait and they believed they could change and grow.

Dweck explained that the kids who refused to quit didn’t feel that they were failing even though they couldn’t solve every puzzle. They believed they were learning. For them, the puzzle was more like a coach and less like a referendum on their abilities or intelligence.

As I read this fascinating study, it struck me how important a growth mindset is for effective leadership. If we feel that our competencies and abilities are static, what we were born with, we won’t personally grow nor will our leadership grow. However, when we face difficult challenges and believe that God has given us the capacity to grow and develop, we’ll become more effective leaders.

So, how might we develop a growth mindset?

1. Be aware of the stories we tell ourselves.

The term metacognition means to think about what we are thinking about. The next time you face a difficult leadership challenge, pause and listen to your self-talk (practice metacognition). Do the stories you are telling yourself reflect a fixed or growth mindset? Do the same when you work with others. Listen to the stories you are telling yourself about them.

2. Recognize that an anxious feeling about a leadership challenge does not imply you lack faith or don’t have what it takes.

Our brains are wired to dislike uncertainty. When we face an uncertain leadership challenge, the fight-flight center of our brain releases hormones into our blood stream and neurotransmitters into our brain. This results in unpleasant emotions we feel, like anxiety. Remind yourself that leadership challenges are uncertain and to feel a bit anxious is normal. It has nothing to do with your ability to handle the challenge.

3. Include learning as a goal when faced with a leadership challenge. 

When we face a leadership challenge, we certainly want to solve the problem or overcome the challenge. However, the next time you face the challenge, include as one measure of success what you actually learn about yourself and the problem area. Learning may actually serve you better in the long term than solving the problem.

4. Don’t fear failure.

The possibility of failure should never keep us from facing new challenges in life or leadership. The prophet Isaiah addressed fear when he wrote these words.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  (Is 41.10)

So, a growth mindset may not be the ‘holy grail’ of effective leadership, but it can make a profound difference in how well you lead.

What do you think about a growth versus a fixed mindset? Where do you see yourself? 

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A Simple Way to Deal with Criticism

In the heat of the moment when someone criticizes us, it’s easy to react and make things worse. Too often when I’ve received a critical comment at church I’ve gotten defensive or said something in return that I wish I could take back. Has that every happened to you? When that happens, what can we do in the moment? Years ago I learned a simple acronym that can help us respond appropriately to criticism. Here it is.

Illustration depicting cut out letters arranged to form the word critic.

Respond to criticism with LEARN.

  • L listen: Simply hear the person out.
  • Eempathize: Acknowledge how they feel.
  • Aapologize: Even if you aren’t responsible for the problem, an apology for their experience may help ameliorate ill feelings.
  • Rrespond: Explain that you will attempt to address the issue if at all possible.
  • Nnotify:  Let those who can potentially fix the problem know about it.

The next time someone in your church brings you a complaint, LEARN from it instead of reacting to it.

What has helped you respond appropriately to criticism?

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A Counter-intuitive Way to Manage Ministry Pain

Pain and ministry go together like peanut butter and jelly. Once you make a PB&J sandwich, there’s no separating the two ingredients. Neither can we isolate successful ministry from the pain it inevitably brings. I don’t like rejection, disappointment, or criticism. I don’t know any pastor who does. Sometimes, however, I do everything I can to avoid them. However, this woman approached pain in a counter-intuitive way.

Portrait of a man with fist and eyes closed on black background

A French nun who lived in the late 1800s, Thérèse of Lisieux (known as “the Little Flower”), practiced a simple way to draw closer to Jesus.

It is, in short, to seek out the menial job, to welcome unjust criticisms, to befriend those who annoy us, to help those who are ungrateful.

Thérèse didn’t allow those experiences to help her grow only if they came her way; she actually sought them out and embraced them. As difficult as that seems, perhaps the Lord would want you to consider this unusual tool to help you become a more effective pastor and follower of Jesus.

What are your thoughts on what Thérèse did? Does it seem too ‘out there’ or was she onto something?

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The Causes and Cure for Leadership Burnout

Leadership is tough. Good leaders understand this and manage their lives and leadership demands to avoid burnout. Sometimes, however, even the best leaders get burned out. If you’re now facing it, examine the cause list below to see what factors may be contributing to it. Then, take one proactive step this week from the cures list to take better care of yourself.

Hand holding a match burning at both ends

4 Causes of Leadership Burnout:

1. Allostatic load.

This term describes the wear and tear on our body from chronic stress. Our bodies have limits. Yet, when we are under stress for long periods of time, our bodies suffer. Prolonged stress causes sustained high levels of the stress hormone cortisol which, along with an overabundance of other neurotransmitters and hormones, can cause heart problems, weight gain, impaired immunity, decreased memory due to brain cell atrophy, and diminished brain functioning. 

2. Power stress.

Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, authors of Resonant Leadership, coined this phrase to describe a kind of stress unique to leaders. “Power stress is part of the experience that results from the exercise of influence and sense of responsibility felt in leadership positions.” McKee and Boyatzis explain that when the demands of leadership get so high and leaders fail to manage it, they risk becoming trapped in what they call the Sacrifice Syndrome. Sometimes we leaders feel so overly responsible for the success of our organizations or churches that we get caught in a vicious cycle of unhealthy sacrifice for others that leads to burnout.

3. Continuous partial attention. 

Linda Stone, author and consultant, developed this phrase to describe the mental trap we easily fall into when we constantly scan our surroundings to look for the best opportunities to spend our time on. It happens when we ‘skim,’ and pay attention, only partially. When this happens to a leader, he will fail to focus on the most important tasks at hand and get further behind on mission critical issues. Then, he must rush to get the important things done which contributes to chronic stress.

4. Multi-tasking. 

“Many leaders have convinced themselves that multitasking leads to greater productivity. However, researchers have shown that when we try to process two mental tasks at once, our mental capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old. And it can reduce our mental capacities as if we missed a night’s sleep or smoked pot (Rock, 2009, pp. 34– 36). Multitasking can also diminish long-term memory (Foerde et al., 2006). Even college students who multitasked with their laptops while in a class scored lower on tests than did students who didn’t multitask. And students who could see others multitasking also scored lower. So multitasking decreases others’ productivity as well as our own (Sana et al., 2013).” (from People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone).

In fact, research shows that multitasking can add up to a 40% loss of productivity in a day. This decrease in productivity is called task switch cost. 

So, what can we do to combat these factors that lead to burnout? Consider these steps.

4 Cures of Leadership Burnout:

1. Exercise.

For years research has shown that exercise benefits our body. But recent research has discovered that it benefits our brains as well. When we exercise it causes our brains to release a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain. It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. The better we take care of our brains, the better leaders we will be. 

2. Statio.

Statio describes a Christian monastic practice that we might call a mini-transition between events of the day. It’s a moment between moments when we pause from once task before going to the next. It allows us to break our hurry, obtain closure from the prior task, and prepare our hearts and minds for what comes next. Leaders who practice this can turn down their body’s fight-flight system (the sympathetic nervous system) and engage the rest and digest system (the parasympathetic system) which makes us calmer. Read this post by Daniel Schroeder to learn more about statio.

3. Sleep.

“When we don’t get enough sleep, we rob our brains of important neural functions because the brain is actually very active during sleep. Although the brain never really shuts down, it’s only truly at rest during non-REM sleep, which accounts for only 20 percent of our normal sleep cycle. During the other 80 percent, sleep helps the brain encode, strengthen, stabilize, and consolidate our memories from the day. Our brain replays what we have learned during the day (Medina, 2009, p. 164) to make our memories stick. Sleep also plays an important role in learning.” (from Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry by Charles Stone (Kindle Locations 1671-1675))

4. Get off the grid.

In our 24-7 connected world, our smart phones can actually keep us on high alert and in stress mode. I find that if I choose a 24-hour period (my Sabbath) when I don’t check email, I’m much more at peace. Getting off the grid helps disengage my mind and slow my internal pace. I’d also encourage you to turn off the automatic notifications function on your smart phone and on your computer.

What has helped you avoid burnout as a leader?

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How Going to Church Benefits Brain and Body

As a committed follower of Jesus, I’ve gone to church literally my whole life. My parents took me when I was a kid. I wanted to go as an adult. And in another sense, I’d better go now. After all, I am a pastor. Most believers understand that church attendance does (or should) help us grow spiritually. But did you know that God wired our bodies and brains to benefit from both attending church and developing a healthy spiritual life? Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg notes that since the year 2000 over 400 papers have been published each year on this topic. Consider these ways science shows us that church attendance benefits both brain and body.

brain working out

How Going to Church Benefits Brain and Body

First, two caveats.

  • I’m assuming your church is a Bible-based, grace-filled place. If your church atmosphere is legalistic, harsh, and overall condemning, it can actually harm your body and brain.
  • These studies don’t necessarily show a causal relationship (attending church causes such benefits). Rather, most of the studies show a correlation. That is, attending church and these benefits are closely related. Nevertheless, science continues to discover more body and brain benefits from walking with Christ and being with His people

1. It decreases stress. The stress hormone cortisol is released by the adrenal glands that lie on top of our kidneys. Good stress (eustress) keeps us keep motivated and alert. So cortisol is not all bad. But prolonged stress that keeps unhealthy high cortisol levels in our body damages both it and our brains. Heart problems, a dampened immune system, and diminished memory result from prolonged stress. However, church attendance can decrease the stress response thus decreasing the amount of cortisol in your body.

2. It increases the trust hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin is one of the ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters). If the church you attend is filled with kind and caring people, your brain will release this chemical helping you bond with others. Biblical community is really good for you.

3. It may thicken your brain. One brain study discovered that those who place a high value on spirituality (though not necessarily tied to church attendance) showed thickening in some brain areas. Many other studies now show that reflective and contemplative spiritual practices grow several parts of your brain.

4. It can help lessen depression. A group of Canadian researchers discovered that those who attended church more regularly experienced less depression. They surmised that social support made the difference resulting in people being more resilient. (see number 2 above)

5. It may help you live longer. One study showed that attending church increased the lifespan for whites by an average of 7 years and potentially 14 years for African Americans. The more people go to church, the less likely they are to die sooner than those who don’t go to church.

6. Finally, church attenders commit suicide less often, deal with pain better, have less cardiovascular problems, and recover quicker from surgery.

A final word.

We follow Christ, not because of the pragmatic benefits, like taking aspirin for a headache. We follow Him because he created us with a soul thirst that can only be quenched in Him. However, when we do turn to Jesus and His Body, He gives us some nice brain and body benefits as well.

So the next time you are in church, thank God for these brain and body benefits.

What other practical benefits have you experienced from attending church?

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