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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Are you in an Unhealthy Relationship Triangle?

Relationship triangles are the essential building blocks relationship systems are built upon. And I don’t mean them in the sense of a love triangle. We can’t avoid triangles. If you spend any time with people, relationship triangles will form. They aren’t intrinsically good or bad, they just are. A triangle provide a visual way to describe the dynamics between two people and an issue/group or the dynamics between three people. They picture how strained relationships between two people cause them to intentionally or unintentionally avoid issues, dump burdens, shift pain, and pass relationship angst to a third person. Often we leaders get triangled in which can diminish our effectiveness. So how do we avoid unhealthy triangles? Consider these suggestions.

Hands holding rope forming triangle isolated on white

1. Think in threes.

Play a grown up version of Where’s Waldo by looking for triangles in your relationships. As you relate to others, always keep in mind that we naturally tend to handle our anxiety through triangles. They come in many forms. Keep an open eye to their pervasiveness. Here are some examples.

  • Husband-wife-child
  • Husband-wife-job
  • Pastor-wife-church
  • Boyfriend-girlfriend-dad
  • Husband-wife-inlaw (or outlaw)
  • Boss-employee-employee
  • President-board-customers
  • Brother-sister-parent
  • Pastor-elder-elder
  • Pastor-board-church vision
  • Brother-sister-inheritance
  • Student-teacher-parent
  • Student-student-teacher

2. Don’t try to fix the problems of the other two in a triangle.

Imagine a triangle and a each point place a different person, ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and ‘C,’ with ‘A’ being you. If ‘B’ and ‘C’ are at odds with each other and you are the third point in the triangle, avoid the temptation to force change in ‘B’s’ relationship with ‘C.’ I tried for years in a previous church to get a leader to see another person in the church in a positive light. Even after many attempts, I never heard him say, “Charles, you are right. I don’t know why after all these years I saw ____ like I did. He’s a great guy.”

In fact, the opposite occurred. The harder I tried to make the relationship get better, the worse it got. It wore me out because I was taking on their relationship tension. And for all my efforts, their relationship never improved.

I don’t mean to imply that we should discourage healthy dialogue between two people in conflict. We should often coach others toward healthy dialogue. But when we try to push a relationship to get better, it seldom will. People resist such efforts.

When Martha tried to triangle in Jesus to force Mary help her in the kitchen (Luke 10.38-42), He did let himself get sucked in. He pointed back to Martha’s heart condition rather than trying to ‘fix’ Mary.

3. Don’t bail or distance yourself from those in your triangles.

We naturally tend to shy away from relationships in conflict. We don’t want to deal with the emotionality they bring. However, distancing or bailing out often makes the relationship worse. And when we distance ourselves, we actually keep people in the dark. The result? The relationship often gets worse. So, keep a reasonable connection to each person in the triangle.

4. Expect triangles to intensify in times of change or stress.

When you face more stress in your family, at work, or in your relationships, the tendency to get triangled in will increase as will your tendency to triangle somebody else in. Be more vigilant and aware during those times. Remember to take responsibility only for the relationships you are in, ‘A’ to ‘B,’ and ‘A’ to ‘C.’ Refuse to take unhealthy responsibility for the other two in the triangle, ‘B’ to ‘C.’ Encourage healthy dialogue between the two and focus on your relationship with each person. Often when you do that, the tension between the other two in the triangle will lessen.

5. Focus on issues, not personalities.

When we get triangled, we’re tempted to take sides. The solution to the relationship problem may be obvious to us and to the offending party. However, keeping emotionally neutral can keep you from getting over involved. When you sense someone is trying to suck you and trying to get some commitment out of you to take sides, a good response is, “Let me think about that.”[1] 

6. Know the signs when someone’s trying to triangle you in.

Here are some potential signs that someone is trying to draw you into an unhealthy triangle.

  • When someone obsesses about somebody else not doing his or her job.
  • When someone takes an unhealthy interest in the problems of others.
  • When someone tries to rescue another.
  • When you get an uncomfortable feeling that someone wants to get unnecessarily close to you.
  • When someone over-focuses on you in a negative way (i.e., criticism) or he over-focuses on you a positive way (i.e., extreme flattery).
  • When someone’s reaction to you exceeds what the situation would normally dictate.

7. Map your own triangles.

Think about the unhealthy triangles you may be in now. Draw those triangles on a sheet of paper. Put names on them. Take a learner’s stance and ask yourself these questions.

  • How are you responding to those in your triangles? Is it healthy or unhealthy?
  • What patterns do you see? Are they healthy or unhealthy?
  • Is the same person constantly trying to triangle you in?

When we discover and become more aware of our relational and emotional triangles, we can keep a more objective stance to the unhealthy ones, which in turn helps us lead better.

What are some negative results you’ve seen in your life when you’ve been sucked into unhealthy triangles?

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[1] Margaret J. Marcuson, Leaders Who Last, Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry (New York, NY: Seabury Books, 2009), Kindle e-book loc. 582.


The Dumbest Mistake I Ever Made as a Pastor

On the whole, I believe pastors are a pretty smart bunch. We earn advanced degrees, study biblical languages, go to conferences to learn, and constantly challenge our brains when we prepare messages and talks. I’ve earned two theology degrees and consider myself a relatively smart guy. But, brain smarts won’t guarantee ministry fruitfulness. Our walk with Christ fundamentally matters. And how we manage relationships probably ranks second in influence. As I look back over my 34 years in ministry, I realize I repeatedly made this one really dumb mistake in the relationship area.

Smart Vs Dumb - Choose Intelligence Over Ignorance

I hid out.

I don’t mean that I intentionally hid from people. But I isolated myself too much from staff and people in the church. I didn’t make myself visible enough.

  • In one church my office was the furtherest away from everybody else. And I stayed in it way too long during work hours. I seldom came out of the office.
  • In that same church I didn’t emerge from my office until three minutes before the Sunday service.
  • In another church as a low level associate, I would never meet with anyone unless they made an appointment several days in advance. This practice certainly may be necessary for the lead pastor of a large church, but not for my role at the time, my first full time position.

Since those early years, I think I’ve grown up and become much wiser. Most church people (and staff) recognize that lead pastors are busy. Yet, they want to feel they have some connection to him or her. They don’t want to feel we are always in a rush to be somewhere else.

I now recognize that my visible presence matters greatly. And I don’t mean that we should make ourselves 24/7 accessible. We, too, must keep healthy margins. But, church people and staff need relational touches. Even small ones matter.

Here are changes I’ve made to help me be less of a ‘hider.’

  1. When I’m not preaching on a Sunday, I visit the kid’s areas, poke my head in each classroom, and thank the leaders. I don’t just sit in my office and read (which I enjoy doing).
  2. Before each Sunday service I intentionally finish my prayer time with an elder 10-15 minutes prior to the service start time so I can shake people’s hands and chat.
  3. I ask an elder to close out each service in prayer and just prior to that as I share some final comments, I explain that I will be at the welcome center after the service and would like to meet new people.
  4. I more often manage staff using the MBWA technique, Management By Walking Around. Although I still keep my door closed to minimize interruptions, I intentionally break throughout the day and wander around to touch base with staff.
  5. When I talk to a staff person during the week or a church person on Sundays, I try to give them my full presence through eye contact and genuine listening. Even a minute or two ‘fully present’ interaction can make a positive deposit into the souls of others.

I’m much wiser now and hope that going forward I won’t make as many dumb mistakes as I did when I was younger.

What’s the dumbest mistake you’ve every made as a pastor?

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11 Traits of a Foolish Pastor

When you think of a ‘fool’ often a humorous movie character comes to mind like the Three Stooges, Don Knotts, or Jerry Lewis. But Proverbs gives a different slant on a fool. We are to avoid them, not argue with them, or refuse to employ them. Proverbs describes fools as unwise, unteachable, proud, and blinded to their foolishness. But can pastors sometimes act like fools? I think so. Consider these 11 traits of a foolish pastor.

Making faces
  1. Foolish pastors live in a black or white world.
    Very little is gray for them.
  2. Foolish pastors think they have all the answers. Because of their education, experience, or “God’s anointing,” they believe God made them the repository of all correct answers and good ideas.
  3. Foolish pastors are blind to their own weaknesses. When someone tries to help them see their blind spots they often respond with, “Yea, but….” They seldom receive correction well. They give an excuse for everything.
  4. Foolish pastors shift blame and minimize responsibility instead of owning up to their mistakes and errors of judgment. They often defensively react.
  5. Foolish pastors take credit instead of giving credit to others. 
  6. Foolish pastors see themselves as victims… of misunderstanding from others (they just don’t know what it’s like being a pastor), a bad church situation, or a resistant board they inherited when they came to their church.
  7. Foolish pastors think they deserve special treatment like discounts at stores or deference from others because of their position.
  8. Foolish pastors resist accountability. They like to make their own loosey-goosey schedule. Since they are “always on” they justify not keeping a reasonable office schedule.
  9. On the other hand, some foolish pastors think they are at the beckoned call of everyone in the church. They take pride in being available to others 24/7. Unfortunately, their family and personal life suffers.
  10. Foolish pastors don’t see how they suck the life from others with their demands, passive aggressiveness, or whiney attitudes.
  11. Foolish pastors ultimately flame out, burn out, or compromise their morals and integrity. They simply will not last in ministry.

Fortunately, I’ve only met a few foolish pastors. One foolish pastor I knew destroyed two churches, his marriage, and sullied the reputations of the good pastors in his community (guilt by association).

Most pastors are men and women of integrity who sacrifice greatly for a call greater than themselves.

I applaud you.

I love you and hope my blogs and books encourage you.

But…if you are a foolish pastor, please turn from your foolish ways and find someone who will help you before it’s too late.

What are some other traits you’ve seen in foolish pastors?

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Healthy Leaders Look like an Avocado

I love avocados. They add a nice touch to a ham sandwich. And without them we wouldn’t enjoy guacamole with our chips. But avocados also provide a good metaphor for a healthy leader. Every leader needs a strong inner spiritual and emotional core, what I call a healthy spiritual immune system that helps us ward off leadership viruses like unhealthy people pleasing, margin-less leadership, and inflexibility. Here’s how an avocado pictures a healthy leader.


If you peel away an avocado’s skin, two parts remain: the mushy green stuff and the pit. It doesn’t take much effort to remove the fleshy part of the avocado. You can easily cut it off or scrape it off. However, you can’t do the same with the seed. You can’t easily cut it or change its shape. Why? Because it’s solid.

A strong spiritual and emotional core (strong immune system) is like that large, solid seed in an avocado. We certainly must have a soft side, but at his core, a good leader is solid, in the good sense of the word.

However, with a weak spiritual immune system, a people pleaser, a margin-less leader, or an inflexible leader has a much smaller inner core and a much larger ‘squishy’ part. We easily morph and adapt to the pressures around us and lose parts of ourselves when we try to please others in an unhealthy way. And of course we could swing in the other direction as well when we become too ‘solid;’ that is, unyielding and inflexible.

One writer on this subject, Murray Bowen contrasted these two parts by calling one a ‘solid self’ and the other a ‘pseudo-self’ when he wrote these words.

The solid self says: “This is who I am, what I believe, what I stand for, and what I will or will not do in any given situation. The solid self is made up of clearly defined beliefs, opinions, convictions, and life principles….The pseudo-self is composed of a vast assortment of principles, beliefs, philosophies, and knowledge acquired because it is required or considered right by the group.” [Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (New York: Aronson, 1978), p. 365]

Evaluate yourself to see how solid or squishy you are as a leader.


Stands on principles vs changes to avoid other’s displeasure
Does what is right vs keeps the peace to keep others happy
Authentic vs pretend
Clings to God when pressured vs acquiesces to others when pressured
Listens to disagreement vs giving in to it or becoming defensive
Carefully considers differing viewpoints vs quickly embracing them to avoid someone’s displeasure
Thoughtfully responds vs automatically reacts

What other qualities do ‘solid’ leaders show in their leadership?

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Adapted by permission from People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership, IVP, 2014.