The Worrying and Fearful Leader

Worry and anxiety can stifle the effectiveness of the best leader. In my life when anxiety gets the best of me, my leadership always suffers. So, what goes on in the mind of a leader when he or she worries and what can we do about it? Consider these suggestions.

anxiety brain

When we feel anxious, a process in our brain starts because God created our brains to help us survive. When we feel threatened and anxious from a roar we hear outside our tent while camping or from a roar from a nasty email, it initiates a flight-fight response in our bodies.

One significant component of our flight-fight brain structure is called the amygdala, two almond shaped clusters of brain cells (neurons) that activate when we sense real or perceived threat. 2/3’s of the cells in the amygdala are wired to look for the negative. That’s why it’s so easy to get anxious, worried, or fearful. The amygdala is always looking for a problem.  

 Unfortunately, it’s not good at distinguishing between a valid and real threat.

Worry and fear show up in our bodies in several ways:

  • Our heart rate and breathing increases.
  • Our pupils dilate.
  • Saliva production slows (that’s behind dry mouth when we feel anxious or fearful before we speak).
  • Our muscles can tighten (many of us carry our tension in our shoulder muscles and neck).
  • We can feel goosebumps (think of how you feel when you hear the ‘bump’ in the night).
  • We get that ‘anxious’ feeling (norepinephrine, also known as adrenalin, is released in our bloodstream as a hormone and into our nervous system as a neurotransmitter).
  • Memory, decision making, motivation, and attention get diminished (our fear center hogs our limited mental resources).

So what can we do to minimize the effects of anxiety and fear upon leadership.

  1. Awareness: If we constantly live with low level anxiety, our fight-flight centers are more sensitive so it takes less to push us into serious worry, anxiety, and fear. The term, metacognition, means to be aware of awareness or aware of what you are thinking about. Instead of mindlessly rushing through life, often stop during the day to ask yourself these questions to become more aware of your inner world and the chatter in your mind (metacognition).
    • What am I thinking about right now?
    • What are my feelings right now?
    • Are these thoughts and feelings based upon reality?
  2. Labeling: We’ve often been told that to make painful emotions go away, ignore or suppress them. Actually, studies show that doing so does the opposite. Ignoring or stuffing them actually makes them stronger. Instead, take the power out of your painful emotions by recognizing them and naming them. Scientists have discovered that when we label them (i.e., I am feeling anxious), we actually calm our fight-flight centers.
  3. Distancing: Another very helpful way to calm anxiety and fear is to take the proverbial ‘fly on the wall’ perspective as an observer. When you experience these emotions, imagine stepping back as a third person observer and observing yourself and the situation at a distance. Distancing has proved to be one of the most effective ways to calm our fight-flight centers.

I love how Martin Laird, a college professor and writer, uses the metaphor of a mountain’s response to weather to picture how we should respond to unpleasant emotions. He bases his thoughts on Psalms 125.1. Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever.

Mt Zion symbolizes God’s power, blessing, and protection. So, when we trust in the Lord and redirect our thinking and our attention, we are like a mountain and how it responds to weather.

A mountain has weather around it all the time. The mountain does not become the weather. It simple observes it. In Christ we are like that mountain with all kinds of external and internal weather around us. Now we may prefer certain kinds of weather, but we are not the weather.

Your anxious thoughts and emotions are not you.

They are simply the weather.

The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. But we are not the weather. We are the mountain. Weather is happening—delightful sunshine, dull sky, or destructive storm—this is undeniable. But if we think we are the weather happening on Mount Zion (and most of us do precisely this with our attention riveted to the video [of our internal world, my addition]), then the fundamental truth of our union with God remains obscured … When the mind is brought to stillness (what Paul calls thinking on these things) we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain. [Laird, Martin (2006-06-07). Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Kindle Locations 287-293). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition]

So, paying attention to our thoughts and emotions is essential for good leadership. If we don’t pay attention to our inner world, we become captive to it and blinded to its potential negative effects upon our souls and upon our leadership.

What has helped you deal with worry and anxiety?

Related posts:

How Often should Preachers Practice their Sermon?

I’ve served in ministry over 30 years and I’ve preached a lot of sermons. Some have been good and some, well, not so good. Three factors have made the biggest positive difference for me: preparing my heart before the Lord, scheduling adequate study time to avoid feeling rushed, and practicing preaching my sermon. In this blog I suggest a few benefits from practice and describe my practice/preparation process.

gray word on red wall

As a framework, a few insights about me.

  • I’m not an A++ communicator. I’d say I’m a solid B+. God has gifted me with a good mind and relatively good speaking abilities, but I don’t command a multi-thousand person church audience. I’ll speak to several hundred people on an average Sunday.
  • I don’t have a photographic memory that allows me to memorize my sermons.
  • I don’t have unlimited energy, need 8 hours of sleep at night, and go into a semi-comotose mode at about 8:30 each night. So, I can’t pick up extra study hours at night. If study gets done, it must happen during daylight hours.
  • I study slow. I can’t quickly craft a message. Even after three decades of doing it, I still need 15 hours or so to create a message, excluding practice time.

Even with my limitations, I’ve discovered that practicing my sermon yields several benefits.

  1. Familiarity: When I practice, I become more familiar with the homiletic part (how will I say it), a different kind of familiarity than hermeneutic familiarity (what the Bible says).
  2. Improvement: When I practice my message, I notice how I can say things differently which improves what I eventually do say.
  3. Shortening: Practice often helps me realize that I can remove some parts of my sermon without affecting the message I want to convey. I almost always shorten my sermon as I practice it.
  4. Confidence: The more familiar I become with my sermon, the less I have to think about what “comes next” when I preach which increases my confidence during delivery.
  5. Memory: Although I don’t memorize my messages (I work from a complete manuscript), the more I practice, the more it imbeds into my subconscious which frees me to connect better with the congregation through eye contact and body language when I deliver it.
  6. Timing: I usually try to use humor in each message. Professional comedians practice a lot to improve timing in their humor. When I practice, it helps me improve my timing.

Here’s my routine.

  • I complete my study and write my manuscript at least two weeks ahead of time.
  • On the Thursday prior to the Sunday when I will deliver it, I review it again, tweak it, and highlight key phrases (all in Microsoft Word).
    • I save it as a PDF to my iPad app Notability, one of the best PDF markup apps available. I preach from an iPad mini, instead of paper notes. You can read about my experience with an iPad here.
    • I go to an upstairs closet in the church and preach it out loud once.
  • On Friday, I slowly and silently review it, further tweaking it directly on Notability.
  • On Saturday, I preach in out loud in my bedroom closet (second practice).
  • On Sunday morning, I practice it out loud one more time in my closet (third practice).

So, I practice it out loud three times and silently tweak it twice.

I’ve found that this pattern allows me to best prepare, without overdoing the practice.

What is your prep routine?

Related posts:

9 Ways to Boost Brain Power

God gave each of us a two-pound dynamo called the human brain. It’s truly the most amazing physical object in the universe. Yet, many people (and leaders) don’t take care of their brains and later in life they pay the price. However, we can keep boost our brain power and keep our brains healthy and humming along with 9 simple choices.


First, some sobering facts about the brain.

  1. Our brain’s overall volume decrease 5% per decade after the age of 40.
  2. Dendrites at the end of our brain cells (think of the roots of a tree) begin to decline starting in our twenties. The more ‘bushy’ our dendrites, the better and more efficient our brain processes information.
  3. Gray matter (brain cells called neurons) also begin to decline starting in our mid-20’s.
  4. The insulation (called myelin) that wraps around the tail of a neuron (called an axon) thins as we age. The thicker the myelin the faster the electrical impulses travel along the axon. And, faster is better.
  5. The receptors for the neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine decreases. This chemical plays a major role in attention, learning, and reward.

These brain changes lead to memory loss, decreased attention, slowed mental processing, and lessens our ability to learn. However, even with these sobering facts, we can reduce the rate of cognitive decline and keep our brains healthy by applying these 9 choices

9 Ways to Boost Brain Power

  1. Get moving.
    • Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain. When we exercise, a chemical called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) is released and it keeps our neurons healthy. Some call it the brain’s Miracle Grow.
  2. Use it our lose it.
    • Think of your brain as a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. The more we use our brain, the more we create something called cognitive reserve, the brain’s savings account. As we age, the more cognitive reserve we have developed, the more capacity the brain has to reallocate functions to other regions of the brain from regions that may not be working as well.
  3. Make lots of friends. 
    • Staying connected to others in community helps keep your brain fresh.
  4. Volunteer/serve others.
    • People who volunteer have a much less chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease and have less stress. Prolonged stress on the body can actually shrink our brain, especially in our memory center.
  5. Keep you devotional life strong.
    • At the end of our chromosomes lie tiny end caps called telemeres, much like the plastic sleeves at the end of our shoe laces. Scientists have discovered a positive correlation to the length of these end caps and longevity. In studies of those who regularly mediate, their chromosomes consistenly have longer telemeres. So, a daily quiet time may help you live longer.
  6. Don’t veg in front of the TV.
    • In some sobering new research, scientists have discovered that watching too much TV can alter the brain structure of children in areas related to verbal intelligence. So, monitor the amount of TV you watch.
  7. Eat your spinach.
    • A healthy diet is crucial for brain health. Foods such as dark leafy veggies, blueberries, green tea, and those rich in omega-3 fatty acids (the brain’s building blocks) bodes well for a healthy brain. Some supplements such MCT oil, vitamins E and B, and CoQ10 may also boost brain power.
  8. Learn something new.
    • The brain loves novelty. When we learn something new (learn a new skill or develop a new hobby), we actually encourage growth of new brain cells.
  9. Get adequate sleep.
    • When we sleep the brain is quite active. It consolidates what we learned that day into long-term memory and helps grow new neurons in our memory center (the hippocampus). Sleep also clears out a deposit called beta amyloid that accumulates in Alzheimer’s disease.

Take care of your brain and it will serve you well. Since the brain is part of the body, we should heed the words of the Apostle Paul.

1Cor. 6.19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;  20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (NIV)

If you are interested in how brain insight can help improve leadership, watch for my new book coming out this May, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry. If you want a reminder when it comes out, you can join my email list here. It is now available for pre-order.

Related posts:

Just Because You are Competent to Develop a New Competency, Should You?

I lead a young men’s leadership group on Thursday mornings and enjoy spending time with these young leaders. This past week we discussed the challenge we all face to choose the right priorities, work on our weaknesses, and wisely manage our time. Out of that conversation, this phrase entered the conversation. “Just because we may have the competency to develop new competencies, should we?”

  In other words, how can we discern when to give time, resources, and attention to learning something new, working on a personal deficit, or developing a new skill or competency? Consider these questions as you discern a potential new direction.

Business decision

Before I suggest a few questions, it’s worth noting that in the last few years some influential movements have arisen that bear upon this question.

  • The simplicity movement in the church (i.e., Thom Rainer’s book Simple Church and Bill Hybels’s newest book, Simplify)
  • Focusing on your strengths (Gallup’s 30 year strength’s based research resulting in the popular book Strengths Based Leadership)
  • Positive psychology (psychological interventions that focus not so much on our problems, but upon the good stuff in our lives)

As I just passed the sixty year mark, I realize that I don’t have the energy I did when I was thirty, and that as I age, my brain simply slows down. Actually, we begin to lose brain cells beginning in our mid-twenties, a sobering thought. So, I must wisely manage my energy, time, and passion to focus on that which I believe God wants me to accomplish in my final decades.

So the next time you consider giving significant time to a new project, addressing a personal weakness, or developing a new competency, ask yourself these questions.

  1. Would this choice reinforce my God-given strengths and gifts?
  2. Would it increase my potential to maximize Kingdom impact?
  3. Does it fit within my life purpose? If you are not clear on your life purpose and personal values, this blog shows you how to create them.
  4. Am I doing it because I’m trying to please somebody? For in-depth practical help on avoiding unhealthy people pleasing, you can check out my book on the subject here.
  5. Have I carefully considered the trade-offs? Everything we add to our plate means something else has to go.

So the next time you must decide whether or not to develop a new competency or take on something new, let these questions guide your decision making.

What has helped you determine what you should add to your plate?

Related posts:

4 Simple Decisions that Can Boost Personal Productivity

Our church is growing and as we grow, our staff faces greater demands on their time. So, we must work smarter. Since I’m trying to build a learning culture here at West Park Church, I asked myself, “How can I help our staff work smarter?” I’ve adapted and used the Getting Things Done process for years, but sometimes it seems cumbersome. Recently, however, I discovered insights from a Microsoft employee who wrote the book, Getting Results the Agile Way. (I highly recommend it) It’s a simple process that helps improve personal productivity. I’ve summarized below the 4 simple decisions he suggests that can help boost our productivity. I’m beginning to apply them and they really work.

Production has really picked up since we installed coffee pots.


  1. Monday vision: every Monday look at your week and determine the top three things you hope to accomplish. Write them down.
  2. Daily Outcomes: every day determine the top three things you want to accomplish. Write them down.
  3. Rule of Three: as you might have guessed it, practice the rule of three. That is, keep your high priority daily and weekly task/project lists to three items.
  4. Friday Reflection: on Friday look at what you accomplished, what you learned, and what you hope to do differently the following week.

This seems so simple that it seems simplistic. But, that’s it’s beauty.

Less is often more. Simple is often better.

 In his book he expands upon these principles, and many more.

Here’s how we’re trying to incorporate this insight thus far.

  • Each week we read 2-3 chapters of the book.
  • When we meet in our weekly staff meeting we discuss our learnings.
  • I created four posters reflecting the four key insights above and as a reminder I taped them to our conference room wall where we meet.

This author is quite unselfish. He offers a 30-day free plan here where he takes one key insight and expands it each day for 30 days.

As I seek to boost my productivity, while keeping healthy margins, I’m reminded that the Bible even tells us to use our time wisely.

  • Making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. (Eph 5.16, ESV)
  • So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Ps 90.12, ESV)

How can you boost your productivity this week?

Related posts: