The Defensive Leader: 5 Ways to Avoid Becoming One

Defensiveness: excessively concerned with guarding against the real or imagined threat of criticism, injury to one’s ego, or exposure of one’s shortcomings (Dictionary.com). Every leader at times has probably reacted defensively to another. I have and I regret every single time I did. Leaders naturally face situations that can easily provoke a defensive reaction. But seldom does defensiveness move our churches and organizations forward. So how can we avoid defensiveness? I suggest 5 proactive ways. 

  1. Realize the negative effects defensiveness breeds.
    • When we react defensively to a co-worker, an employee, a board member, or a church member, seldom does good come from it. We can shut down the other person or we may incite defensiveness in them which can further escalate a conflict. We can lose the benefit of another’s insight. We can damage a relationship. If we often act defensively, we can create a reputation that can drive others away from us and from important information we need to hear. We can even lose our jobs.
  2. Keep your stress level low.
    • If stress stays at a high level for any length of time, our brain’s fight-flight mechanism gets stuck on hypersensitivity and makes us more prone to defensiveness. Prolonged stress even atrophies some parts of our brain, especially the area involved in memory. But if we manage our stress, the thinking part of our brain stays more engaged and our emotional part less sensitive. Sufficient sleep, time off, good friends, exercise, and fun hobbies can keep our stress low. In this post I suggest specific steps to lessen stress.
  3. Understand where emotions come from in your body and brain.
    • We get defensive when we feel threatened by someone and a domino effect begins in our bodies and brains. Simply knowing how this happens can help us pause before we react. Here’s how the process works.
      • Defensiveness starts with a stimulus: someone says something that makes us feel threatened.
      • Next, an emotion begins at an unconscious level. Chemicals course through our nervous system and hormones flow into our blood stream prompted by a brain structure called the amygdala. This happens within 1/5 of a second, without our conscious awareness.
      • Then we become conscious of an unpleasant sensation (the feeling) within ½ of a second. We feel angry, anxious, or fearful without even choosing the emotion.
      • Next, the thinking part of our brain comes online: we pay attention, we assess the situation, we interpret it, and we decide what to do.
      • THE SPACE (see number 4 below)
      • Finally we respond with some action in response to the feeling and our assessment of the situation. In our case, we get defensive.
  4. Recognize THE SPACE between stimulus and response.
    • THE SPACE is the moment in time between a stimulus (what someone said which resulted in an unpleasant feeling…anger, fear, etc.) and our response (defensiveness). That brief slice of time precedes EVERY choice we make. THE SPACE always gives us time to choose how we will respond. We are not captives to our feelings. We always choose what we do in response to circumstances and our feelings.

      So, when I get defensive, I can’t blame my wife, my kids, lack of sleep, the board, or Obama. It is my choice. However, we can lengthen that space with my suggestion in number 5.

  5. Create more space between stimulus and response by leaning into the resources the Lord provides.
    • Number 2 above, lower your stress level, is crucial to helping us create more space between stimulus and response. However, our ultimate source of strength lies in a growing and abiding faith in Christ. When the Egyptians were hot on the trail of Moses and the Israelites, the people started to freak out. But Moses wisely said in Exodus 14.14, The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still. God’s supernatural resources, when we draw upon them, gives us the ability to refuse to react and resist defensiveness.

So, the next time you feel tempted to get defensive, consider these thoughts and look to the example of Jesus when he hung on the cross.

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet. 2.23, NIV)

What has helped you avoid defensiveness?

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5 Essentials Google Discovered that Create Effective Teams

Google is ubiquitous. As the largest search engine, it has become a common term in our vernacular as, just ‘Google it.’ A couple of years ago Google assigned a team to discover ingredients for effective teams. Five key learnings surfaced from that study. In this post I’ve summarized them with a key question for each because they apply to ministry teams as well as to workplace teams.

Key ingredients that create effective teams.

  1. Impact: Team members believe that their work really matters.
  2. Meaning: Team members view their work as personally important to them.
  3. Structure and Clarity: Team members understand clearly their roles, plans, and goals.
  4. Dependability: Team members meet Google’s high bar of excellence including on-time delivery of projects.
  5. Psychological safety: Team members feel safe enough with fellow team members that they are willing to risk and be vulnerable with each other.

Which one do you believe was the most important quality? If you picked psychological safety, you were right. Although all were important, feeling safe with fellow team members mattered the most.

As I thought about that, it makes sense. Psychological safety seems to be the most interpersonal ingredient. If a job only entails spending time in front of a computer all day on a project that requires not interface interaction with others, it probably wouldn’t matter as much. But interpersonal relationships profoundly affect our emotional health and our spiritual health. That’s why the Bible talks so much about healthy relationships.

Here are key questions to ask yourself about each of these qualities as it relates to the teams you lead.

  1. Impact: When was the last time you asked your team members if they felt their work/ministry really mattered?
  2. Meaning: When was the last time you communicated to a team member how important their role and ministry was?
  3. Structure/clarity: Does each team member have a clearly stated job description and goals for the year that you co-created with them?
  4. Dependability: How well do you model excellence and the attributes you hope they will emulate?
  5. Safety: On a scale of 1-10, how safe do you think your team feels with you? This assessment is an excellent way to discover how safe your team feels.

Next week, pick one of these qualities and take 30 minutes to evaluate what you can do to improve that area.

Related posts:

  • What pastors should look for in safe people
  • 6 Ways to Build Community in your Team

How Chronic Stress Affects Leadership

Our brains play a vital role in effective leadership (duh!). That’s pretty self-evident. Yet, this often overlooked brain fact profoundly reduces leadership effectiveness – chronic stress diminishes your ability to lead because of how it affects your brain. In this post I list five ways chronic stress does that. Whether you’re a pastor or a business leader, effective leaders understand how their brains affect their roles. In my next post I’ll provide some solutions to these problems.

Chronic stress affects leadership in these ways.

  1. It amplifies fear and anxiety.
    • Chronic stress leaves the stress hormone, cortisol, in your body and brain for extended periods of time (as well as imbalancing brain chemicals called neurotransmitters). As a result it keeps the brain’s fight-flight center (the amygdala) on high alert which turns up the dial for fear and anxiety and leaves it there. Fearful leaders don’t lead well. 
  2. It gives you a ‘shorter fuse.’
    • Parts of our brain compete for energy and other resources it needs to work effectively. When the amygdala stays on high alert, it hogs those resources and our brain’s ‘thinker’ (the front part called the pre-frontal cortex) has less of those resources available to pause and reflect before reacting. Leaders who react make dicy situations even worse.
  3. It impairs good decision making.
    • Reduced resources for our brain’s ‘thinker’ also affects our ability to think clearly necessary to make wise, thoughtful decisions. The thinker can literally go ‘off-line’ in stressful situations when a leader has been under chronic stress for a long time. Leaders who don’t make good decisions can hinder their churches’ or organizations’ ability to reach their goals.
  4. It diminishes memory.
    • A key part of the brain involved in turning short term memories into long term memories is called the hippocampus. Chronic stress actually shrinks this part of the brain which makes us more forgetful. Leaders who forget important information or commitments they made to others can lose trust from those they lead.
  5. It decreases motivation.
    • A fundamental way brain cells talk to each other is through chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Chronic stress creates an imbalance of these important chemicals which can lead to depression, listlessness, and decreased motivation. Unmotivated leaders struggle to lead their churches or organizations forward.

So, chronic stress hurts the brain which impairs our leadership.

In my next post I’ll offer some practical suggestions on how to deal with chronic stress.

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Jesus’ 6-Step Strategy for Resolving Conflict

Conflict is unavoidable in relationships. Conflict isn’t necessarily sinful or destructive, but it can be depending on what we do with it. Jesus outlines a clear, specific, and workable process in Matthew 18. And, we simply can’t improve on what Jesus says. I’ve summarized into a 6-step process the essence of what I believe Matthew 18 teaches us.

Before I suggest these steps, here’s the actual passage of Scripture.

Matt. 18.15   “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.  16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.  18   “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19   “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” (NIV)

  1. Determine if you really need to approach the person about the issue.
    • In verse 15 Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you.” In other words, we simply should drop some issues. If we can pray through them and commit to not using them against the other person, drop it.
    • But if you can’t, what might warrant taking the next step?
      • Go if the issue is seriously dishonoring Christ.
      • Go if the issue is damaging your relationship with the other person.
      • Go if the issue is hurting others.
  2. If you do, go with the right heart and attitude.
    • In verse 15 the Scripture says, “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” The win here is that the relationship stays intact, not necessarily that you reach a resolution, even though you hope you do find one. Ultimately the goal is not to win an argument or point out the error of the other person’s ways, but to reconcile. It takes a right heart to help make this happen. In this post I outline 5 ways to prepare your heart.
  3. Prepare for your meeting with the person before you go. Do your homework.
    • Assuming that you’ve arranged a meeting with the person, don’t go in blind. Give some thought to what you want to say. Proverbs 14.8 tells us that, The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways.
    • I’ve found that the acronym, DESC, provides easily recallable mental hooks to guide such a conversation.
      • Describe the behavior that caused the conflict.
      • Explain the emotions you feel/felt when it happens.
      • State the desired changed behavior (the solution).
      • state the positive Consequences the new behavior will bring.
  4. Go in private and in person.
    • We often miss this step yet Jesus is very clear on this when he states, “just between the two of you.” By going to the other person first it avoids prematurely pulling somebody else into the issue and stops potential gossip. Plus, a face-to-face meeting allows us to observe body language which experts say accounts for much more of a message than words alone.
    • However, sometimes it may be wise to seek counsel from an objective party so he or she can give us objective advice.
  5. When you meet, use grace-filled words.
    • If in our conversation with this person we put them on the defensive, the meeting’s over. Grace-filled conversation, however, can create safety and openness to resolving the issue. A great verse that speaks to this is Ephesians 4.29.
      • Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
  6. If you reach a dead-end and feel the issue warrants it, enlist others to help.
    • Sometimes the issue is so serious that even after repeated 1-1 attempts to reconcile we must take the next step. In verse 16 Jesus says if we reach a stalemate, we must include others in the process. Often the leadership in the church should be included at this point. And then if the other party simply refuses to budge, the church must take more severe action (v. 17). Seldom do issues warrant such a drastic step. Yet, God sanctions such action for the sake of the unity in the church (vss. 19-19).

What steps would you add to this list that have helped you resolve conflict?

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Burnout: How to Dig Out

From time to time every leader and pastor faces burnout. The well runs dry. He or she becomes weary in well doing. He runs out of gas. She simply has nothing left to give. When we totter on the precipice of burnout, what can we do? As I’ve faced those times during my ministry, I’ve learned a few ways that have helped me dig out.

  1. Recognize the symptoms
    • Everybody’s burnout looks a bit different. Sometimes burnout comes from doing too much outwardly with over busy schedules. Sometimes burnout comes from an inner world in turmoil: worry, incessant anxiety, and fear. I suggest starting with self understanding. What does your burnout look like? Which of these factors might indicate you are burning out?
      • The joy you once had seems to have disappeared. You seldom have fun anymore.
      • You consistently sleep poorly.
      • You feel non-localized, free floating anger in your heart.
      • You catastrophize in your thinking, assuming the worse in people and life.
      • You easily snap, lose your cool with friends, families, or people in the church.
  2. Rest
    • After you recognize the symptoms, I’ve found that rest really helps. Whether it means taking time off, taking more breaks during your work day, getting more sleep, or trimming your schedule, the body and soul needs rest. Neuroscientists have coined a term for excessive wear and tear on our body due to prolonged stress and burnout, allostatic load. When we don’t give our body and brains time to rejuvenate, we prolong our burnout and its negative effects.
  3. Re-visit
    • Third, revisit your core values and mission. I encourage every leader to develop his or her own mission statement, their mission God has called them to achieve with His power. Most weeks when I do my strategic planning, I revisit my mission statement and personal values. If you’d like to see mine, you can click here. In this post I talk about the importance of developing your own personal values.
  4. Re-orient
    • The final step is to re-orient your time and effort to best live out your personal mission, without burning out. I suggest taking a half day alone to reset your goals and adjust how you use your time. Here’s a post on how to plan a retreat.

If you’ve faced burnout, what has helped you?

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