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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3 Qualities Necessary to Learn from our Critics

Nobody likes to be criticized, at least not at first. Sometimes criticism is warranted. Sometimes it’s not. And sometimes it hard to differentiate between the two. The writer of Proverbs implies that we should learn from and even seek out the beneficial wounds from our critics. Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy. (Pv 27.6) But when we need to heed a message from a critic, how can we position ourselves so that we can benefit from it? Below I suggest three ways we can do so.

  1. Stay teachable. We must be willing to let others tell us what we may not want to hear. We must cultivate an open, non-defensive heart. I’m trying to create such a culture among our staff through one of our key staff values… Continual growth and learning: We welcome constructive feedback. For a list of our staff values, read this blog post.
  2. Keep accountable. One way to stay open to the message from a critic is to develop a mentoring relationship with another person and/or use a coach. I meet with my personal coach each month via FaceTime. (I explain why every pastor should get a coach here.) He is free to ask me tough questions about my life and ministry. I’m also directly accountable to the chairman of the board. Without accountable relationships, we can easily miss our blind spots. I need someone in my life, including my wife, that cares enough about me to ask those tough questions and tell me what I may not want to hear.
  3. Develop a bias toward action. Tom Peters who wrote In Search of Excellence popularized this term. It simply means do something. In other words, when a critic tells us what we don’t necessarily want to hear but need to hear, a bias toward action means that we act on it. Learning from our critics means more than assuming a listening posture. It also includes a doing posture as well. 

So the next time you get criticized, ask yourself what you need to learn from it, if it came from a less-than-friendly source get the perspective from someone who cares about you, and then act upon it.

What other quality do you believe leaders need to learn best from their critics?

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10 Secrets of Leaders who Forgive

Forgiveness. So very hard, yet so very necessary for leaders and pastors to lead well and experience personal freedom and relational health. Good leaders and pastors get the concept of forgiveness. And, it behooves every leader not only to understand and practice these 10 key insights about forgiveness but to teach them as well.

  1. Forgiveness is counterintuitive.
    • It goes against human nature to forgive. Yet God rearranges our natural instincts and impulses by His grace.
  2. If you don’t forgive those who hurt you, you will stay frozen to your pain.
  3. Forgiveness can break the chain of unforgiveness we can unintentionally pass on to our children.
    • Physically we know that we can pass defective genes onto our children. In a similar way unforgiveness is like spiritually deformed DNA that we can pass on from one generation to the next. The Bible says that unforgiveness produces the fruit of bitterness that defiles many (Heb 12.15).
  4. Unforgiveness can lead to unforgiveness’ cousin: revenge, the passion to get even, a delight to hear bad news about those who hurt us, or wishing ill of those who hurt us.
    • Desire for revenge keeps the pain of the wound fresh, like picking a fresh scab over and over.
  5. Forgiveness does not settle all all questions of fairness.
    • What someone did to you is still unfair and wrong. Grace goes beyond fairness. It wasn’t fair that they crucified the ONE who never sinned. Grace doesn’t fit logic. It’s supernatural and beyond logic.
  6. Forgiveness does not minimize the offense.
    • The very nature of forgiveness actually recognizes that an offense occurred.
  7. Forgiveness is often a process that happens over time.
    • The deeper the hurt, the longer the process takes. True forgiveness is not forgive and forget the hurt. It’s more like remembering it less and less.
  8. Forgiveness does not absolve the offender of the consequences of his offense (in the eyes of the law or in the eyes of God).
  9. Forgiveness speaks to the longing of every human heart.

     

    • A  story in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, Capital of the World, illustrates this truth. A Spanish boy named Paco never experienced a relationship with his mother and his father had kicked him out of the house for some reason. Later his dad regretted it but couldn’t find his son. The remorseful father decided to attempt to reconcile with his son who had run away to Madrid and he took out an ad in the El Liberal newspaper. The ad read, PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVENPAPA. Paco is a common name in Spain. When the father went to the square he found eight hundred young men named Paco waiting for their fathers and yearning for the forgiveness they never thought was possible. (source unknown)
  10. You are well on our way to forgiveness when you begin to wish your offender well.

Leaders must model and teach true forgiveness. When we don’t, we can actually keep a lid on the health and growth of our churches and our lives.

Do you believe that unforgiving leaders can hinder the health and growth of their churches? Why or why not?

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Fasting in a Leader’s Life: the 8 Benefits

Fasting is a spiritual practice the Bible encourages. The Old Testament mentions it many times as did Jesus. We often hear and teach that fasting can help us deepen our walk with Christ, but I also believe that leaders should consider fasting to help them lead better. Taken from the book of Isaiah, fasting can bring these 8 spiritual benefits to the life of every leader.

The first 5 verses of Isaiah 58 describe a fast  the people had committed to. Although they seemed eager to know God more intimately, they weren’t truly eager for God. God chastised them for their false humility and in the verses that follow, I’ve gleaned from God’s response to them these 8 positive benefits that fasting offers every leader.

  1.  The Lord can use it as a tool to free you from personal weaknesses or sin areas. 
    • Isa. 58:6    “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
  2. It can help you become a more generous leader.
    • 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
  3. Jesus can bring emotional, relational, or even physical healing.
    • 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear;
  4. It can help you become more aware of His protection over you as a leader.
    • …then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
  5. It can result in your seeing more answers to prayer as your prayers align more closely to God’s will.  
    • 9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
  6. You will become more confident in the dark times you face as a leader.
    • …”If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.   Your darkest hour will be like the noonday sun...
  7. It will remind you that Jesus will give you strength to lead well.
    • 11 The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame.
  8. You will see your leadership yield spiritual fruit.
    • …You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.

Andrew Murray, a South African pastor/writer who wrote 240 books in the late 19th and early 20th century wrote these words.

“Fasting helps to express, deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, to sacrifice ourselves to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God.”

How has fasting helped your leadership?

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8 Ways to Maximize Bible Impact upon your Life

Most believers want to grow spiritually. But often we stumble in our efforts to grow. Is there a key or a silver bullet that catalyzes our spiritual formation? Willow Creek’s Reveal survey of several thousand churches revealed not a silver bullet, but the number one catalyst that believers said contributed most to their growth: Bible reading and reflection. The great leader Nehemiah shows us 8 ways to engage with God’s Word for maximum inpact.

The wall had been built and Ezra gathered the people together and read God’s word to them. Chapter 8 shows us these 8 concepts.

  1. Congregation: engage God’s Word in community with others. (v1-the people were brought together as God’s Word was read and taught). Hebrews 10.24-25 admonishes us to regularly assemble together.
  2. Attention: what gets paid attention to gets remembered. (v. 3-they listened attentively). A fundamental principle of learning and memory says that we learn what we pay attention to. The more we learn and remember, the more the Holy Spirit has to work with to effect change in our hearts. What we pay attention to actually causes our brain to change. It’s called neuroplasticity.
  3. Appreciation: show respect for God’s Word. (v. 5-they stood as God’s Word was read showing respect for it). When we respect God’s Word we are respecting its author.
  4. Explanation: develop a learning mindset. (v 7-the Levites explained to the people what the Scriptures meant). We must be teachable for God’s Word to change us.
  5. Application: do what it says. (chapter 9 describes that the people made direct application to their lives by making a commitment to be holy and to give). Neuroscientists have discovered that what we apply directly to our experience sticks with us the longest.
    • James 1.22Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
  6. Connection: Let God’s word stir your heart. (v 9-the people were convicted of their and their ancestors’ sins when God’s Word was read). When we read the Bible we must lay our hearts open for the Holy Spirit to bring appropriate conviction of our sins.
    • Heb. 4.12  For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.
  7. Repetition: What gets repeated gets learned. (v 18-Ezra read God’s Word to them daily). Learning experts have discovered that cramming information at the last minute does not last. Only repeated exposure over time will last. If Sunday is a person’s only encounter with Scripture, they won’t experience the change that could happen were they to engage the Scriptures on a daily basis.
  8. Satisfaction: Enjoy God’s word. (v 10-Nehemiah encouraged the people to no longer weep but to revel in the truth that the joy of the Lord was their strength). Engaging and embracing God’s Word is not like eating your broccoli. Rather the Bible describes itself like tasty food.
    • Jer. 15.16 When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, O LORD God Almighty.

The Psalmist captured the essence of the how we should approach and engage God’s Word.

Psa. 119.162 I rejoice in your word like one who discovers a great treasure.

 What concepts about God’s Word has spurred your spiritual growth?

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