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.

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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3 Morning Habits Guaranteed to Boost Brain Power

I have a passion for the brain and how applying newly discovered brain science can impact leadership and spiritual growth. I even wrote a book about it. Now into my sixth decade of life, I want to maximize my brain power as I (and everybody else) faces inevitable cognitive decline. In this post I share the bad news about what aging does to our brain (starting in the 20’s) and then share 3 morning habits you can build into your routine to boost your brain power and stay mentally sharp.

The bad news about aging and the brain

Unfortunately, just as we can’t avoid death and taxes, we can’t avoid how aging affects our brains. Here’s what happens to our brains as we grow older.

  • Our brains literally shrink. We lose about 5% of our brain matter per decade beginning in our 40’s. In fact, our frontal lobes, where executive functions like short-term memory, abstract thinking, and emotional control lie, reach their peak in our early 20’s.
  • Our brains slow down. Brain cells (neurons) work primarily through a chemical-to-electrical process. When the neuron ‘fires’ it sends an electrical impulse down a fiber called an axon. Like a wire with insulation, material called myelin also wraps around an axon providing insulation. As we age myelin thins which slows firing which in turn slows mental speed.
  • Our brains don’t remember as well. Over time memory fades due to loss of neurons, especially in the hippocampus, an area crucial to memory. And our ability to temporarily hold information in our minds, called working memory, degrades as well.
  • Command of our vocabulary shrinks. A typical 30-year-old has command of an average of 30,000 words whereas an 80-year-old has command of only about 10,000.
  • Peripheral vision diminishes, hearing degrades, yada, yada. Enough of the bad news.

Even with this bad news, science is now showing us ways that we can slow cognitive decline well into our later years. Everybody is not doomed to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

3 Morning Habits that can Boost your Brain Power

  1. Brain training
    • I just added this to my morning routine. Several companies provide software for your smart phone or computer to help train your brain. Several peer-reviewed studies now show that these brain games don’t simply help you get better at playing the games. Rather, scientists are discovering a clear crossover effect beneficial to cognitive health. I use brainHQ from Posit Science. I’m now doing about 20 minutes of brain training 5-6 days a week. For brain training to work, it must tax your brain and you must keep doing it. Doing a game here and there probably won’t make much difference.
  2. 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. To maximize BDNF, the experts recommend that you exercise at 60-75% of your maximum heart rate for 30 minutes 3-5 times each week.
  3. Mindfulness
    • Mindfulness is a spiritual discipline akin to biblical meditation that I practice as part of my daily devotional time. It’s setting aside a time to be still before God to be in His presence in the present moment. It’s not emptying our mind, but filling our mind with thoughts of Him and His Word. It helps us disengage from automatic thoughts, feelings, memories and reactions and simply be in God’s presence. Last year over 400 studies were published that showed multiple body and brain benefits to mindfulness including increased brain volume in the memory and in the self regulatory areas and decreased volume in the brain’s fight and flight centers. I also use an app that reminds me to take short one minute mindfulness breaks throughout the day.

So, even though aging naturally diminishes brain function, a disciplined approach to brain healthy habits can keep your brain sharp for God, for others, and for you.

How do you keep your brain in shape?

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The iPhone App that Improved my Ability to Concentrate

One of the most precious commodities a pastor has is time. Ministry always beckons us to do more than time permits. I once heard a researcher state that most people have 35 hours of unfinished work ahead of them. However, if we use the time we have most effectively, we’ll become more fruitful for the Kingdom. This app has helps me concentrate better which has improved my time management.

Preparing sermons, at least for senior pastors, is one of the most time consuming Kingdom commitments. Although I don’t preach every week, I still must prepare over 40 original messages each year. Each week I study 15-20 hours to prepare one sermon. That’s a good chunk of my week which requires concentration.

Some time back I purchased a $2.99 iPhone app that has proved invaluable to help me concentrate when I study. When I fully concentrate, I make much more progress than when my mind gets distracted.

That app, Ambiance, is a simple collection of natural (and man-made) sounds that I play on my iPhone through my headphones. They call it an “environment enhancer.” In case you are wondering, I don’t make money on the sale of this app and I’m not connected in any way to the company.

The standard iPhone earbuds work ok, but I purchased a pair of noise canceling headphones (Audio Technica) that block out most ambient noise. You can purchase more expensive ones, but this set works great for me. This would make a great Christmas present. They’re not Bose, but a third the price.

So when I study, I plug in, play a repetitive waterfall or beach sound, and become totally oblivious to the people and sounds around me. My ability to concentrate skyrockets. Science confirms that white noise helps us concentrate.

As Paul the Apostle wrote in Ephesians 5.16, … make every minute count. (CEV)

This simple $2.99 purchase has helped me put that command into practice.

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Are you a Pastor Stuck on Hurry?

Two experiences several years ago caused me one day to pause not only my body, but my mind as well. So often as a pastor I get stuck on ‘hurry’ mode which makes me miss moments in life God intended that I pay attention to. Here are those two sobering experiences and what I learned.

This first occurred at a local diner as I ate breakfast with a friend. The booth I choose gave me a view of the exterior entrance to the diner. Out of my peripheral vision, I noticed a middle-aged man walk up to the glass door. Nothing unusual until he reached for the door handle. He missed it, by about a foot. For about fifteen seconds he kept fumbling with his right hand to find the handle. I thought that a bit odd at first. He finally opened the door. The view from where I sat also allowed me to see the inside entrance. As he walked in, the waitress spoke to him. Then she gently held his arm and directed him to a table. He was almost blind.

In an instant I felt both compassion toward this man and gratefulness for my vision. I could have missed that moment had I been in a mental rush. Hurry is an enemy of learning. 

When I arrived at the office an hour later, the second experience forced me again to push my mental pause button.

The older daughter of one of the admin staff at the church took care of a young boy confined to a wheelchair. His body is broken, he can’t speak, he drools, but his mind remains intact. She had left him alone in his wheelchair for a few moments while she went into the office conference room. I stood at the end of the hall and noticed him alone. I walked up to him, patted him on shoulder and said something like, “You’re a bit wet. That rain is a mess out there, isn’t it?” As drool dripped off his lips, he responded was a loud grunt, the best his body would allow him to articulate.

As I reflected on these two experiences, I was reminded of a concept that author Phil Yancey described in one of his books as ‘time between time,’ a concept also called statio (read more about statio here). He explained that he tries to discipline himself to mentally pause between each day’s activity to reflect over what he just experienced and to prepare his heart for what comes next.

My encounter with a blind man and a boy with a broken body reminded me of those moments in time, statio, the ‘time between time,’ that are often pregnant with meaning, if I don’t rush through them.

Leaders are always looking ahead for the next hill to climb. But sometimes we must pause and make ourselves fully present in the moment so we don’t miss God’s subtle, but important lessons.

How have you learned to keep hurry from robbing you of those special moments?

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Hidden Beliefs in a Leader’s Life: Clues to Discovery

Kevin Cashman wrote an outstanding book on leadership called Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life. In his book he writes about both conscious beliefs and hidden beliefs he calls shadow beliefs. He defines a shadow belief as a belief we hold deep inside, outside of our conscious awareness. Those beliefs profoundly affect us and our leadership. He provides keen insight about how to discover those beliefs.

He contends that these beliefs often hinder leaders from being their best. For example, one shadow belief might be a subtle voice inside that constantly says, “You must perform better than everybody else for people to like you.” For me, one shadow belief I discovered was this. “Everybody around me needs to be happy for me to be happy. Therefore, I must try to make everybody happy.” In the past that belief often stifled my joy and peace and hindered my leadership.

Cashman says that we must bring those shadow beliefs into the light for us to lead at our best. He suggests seven clues that can bring these shadow beliefs to light.

  1. If other people often give us feedback inconsistent with how we see ourselves, a shadow belief is present.
  2. When we feel stuck or blocked and at a loss about what to do next, a shadow belief is holding us back.
  3. If strengths become counterproductive a shadow belief may be behind it.
  4. When are are not open to new information, new learning, or other people’s views, a shadow belief is limiting us.
  5. If we react to circumstances with emotional responses disproportionate to the situation, it may point to a shadow belief.
  6. When we find ourselves forcefully reacting to the limitations of others in a critical, judgemental way, we are often projecting our shadow belief upon others.
  7. If we often experience pain, trauma, or discomfort in our body, a shadow belief may be trying to rise to the surface.

As I’ve faced my shadow beliefs, I’ve experienced greater peace in my life and become a more productive leader.

How about you? What shadow beliefs might be dogging your leadership?

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