Resilience: 5 Signs You’re a “Bounce Back” Leader

Inevitably all leaders face disappointment, setbacks, and difficulty in their roles. As a pastor, I’ve faced my share at times: significant budget deficits, losing crucial staff members, people leaving the church in a huff, programs that didn’t meet expectations, and painful conflict. This side of heaven we can’t avoid the pain that leadership sometimes brings. Some leaders bounce back quickly from such adversity. Some don’t. So what does a “bounce back” leader look like? As you read the following list, ask yourself how many of these qualities would characterize your leadership when you face adversity. The term often used for this ‘bounce back’ quality is called resilience. So we could actually call this list “The Resilient Leader.”

Resilient leaders…

  1. Don’t lead from perpetual caution.

     They take reasonable risks, but don’t “bet the farm” on risky leadership options.

  2. Admit they hurt when they face setbacks. They are honest about how much it hurts. However, they don’t wallow in their pain. The more we ruminate over our disappointments, the more we actually strengthen the fight-flight-freeze-appease parts of our brain which in turn dampens our ability to think clearly.
  3. Seek to learn new insights from their setbacks. Often a setback can be a blessing in disguise, for without it we would not be open to new learning. Resilient leaders are perpetual learners.
  4. Keep a long haul perspective through difficulty. Failure is never fatal nor final.

    Rather, it prompts resilient leaders to step back and refocus on their long term goals, objectives, and core values. Read my post here that explains how we can discover our true north values.

  5. Refuse to let their devotional life slip. In fact, such leaders recognize that in tough times they must draw closer to Him for strength and wisdom.

When you’ve observed great leaders face disappointment and setbacks, what qualities have you seen in them?

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4 Legal Drugs Every Leader Should Know about and Use

Drugs. At first blush the word implies something illegal, immoral, and bad for your body and brain. However, there are 4 key drugs or chemicals that every leader should know about, use, and wisely leverage in the ministry and the workplace.

God wired our bodies and brains to use these four chemicals so that we function most effectively. And leaders who understand their function can help their teams become most productive. So, what are they and how can leaders use them?

First, a  bird’s eye explanation. There are two basic kinds of these drugs or chemicals. Neurotransmitters traffic in our brain’s neurons (brain cells) and hormones flow through our blood. There there are over 100 neurotransmitters and over 50 hormones. Some act as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter.

But these four are significant body-brain chemicals that a leader’s actions can influence in the bodies and brains of those we lead.

  • Dopamine: a neurotransmitter involved in attention and reward. When you learn something new or check something off your to-do list, dopamine gives you a nice pleasurable feeling.
  • Serotonin: the neurotransmitter the brain releases when we feel pride in our work. When someone compliments you on a task you did or a talk you gave, that ‘feel good’ sense comes from serotonin.
  • Oxytocin: the neurotransmitter/hormone called the trust hormone. When you feel safe and secure around another and feel that you belong, this chemical releases and also makes us feel good.
  • Cortisol: called the stress hormone. We need this hormone to respond to the stresses in life. But when under prolonged stress, too much cortisol can damage our cardiovascular system, suppress our immune system, and diminish cognitive function like memory.

As a leader, you can leverage these chemicals in your teams in these positive ways.

  • Dopamine (attention/reward)
    1. Help your team members set and reach realistic goals. When they do, they will get a nice dopamine burst which will motivate them to set and reach new goals.
    2. When you teach, model techniques that can help your team maintain attention and learn more effectively. Some of these techniques that can help the brain release dopamine (and increase attention) include novelty, using object lessons, adding pictures alongside words in power points, and helping the listener apply what they hear.
  • Serotonin (affirmation)
    1. Look for and acknowledge good performance from team members.
    2. Know your team members well enough to know what communicates to them “job well done” (i.e. verbal, in writing, before the group).
  • Oxytocin (trust)
    1. Provide ways for your team members to build community with each other.
    2. Spend relational time with your team simply to get to know them.
  • Cortisol (stress management)
    • While encouraging hard work, reinforce the Sabbath-keeping principle by making sure your team members take a day off to rest.
    • Regularly monitor how well your team members manage their stress. If they are under long term stress, help them develop ways to decrease it.

What specific ways could you leverage these chemicals in your unique team environment?

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Smart Leaders stay close to their Critics

MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS. Little did those accepted for this job out of the thousands who applied realize how true those words would eventually become.

Ernest Shackleton, a well-known explorer in the early 1900s, placed this ad in 1915 to recruit a team for his third attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica. In August of that year, he set sail with his recruits in the ship Endurance, named after his family motto: “By endurance, we conquer.” Three months later they arrived at South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic to begin their thousand-mile trek to the Antarctic Peninsula, a trip expected to take 120 days.

More than a year earlier, Vilhjalmur Stefansson had led a different expedition to explore the Arctic in their ship, the Karluk. Both ships endured similar fates in their respective voyages. Dennis Perkins recorded these words about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition:

The masts toppled and the sides were stove in, as shards of ice ripped the strong timbers to shreds. Frank Wild made a last tour of the dying vessel and found two crewmembers in the forecastle, fast asleep after their exhausting labor at the bilge pumps. He said, “She’s going, boys, I think it’s time to get off.” ( N. T. Perkins, Leading on the Edge, New York: AMACOM, 2000, p. 6.)

Both expeditions, a year apart, had been gripped in an icy vice that crushed their respective ships, forcing each party onto the ice and into horrific conditions. Yet similar circumstances, only poles apart, yielded dramatically different results. In the months following the Karluk’s destruction, the crew disintegrated into a conflict-­laden, self-centered group, which resulted in the death of eleven of its crew.

In contrast, Shackleton’s crew, although they too confronted harsh circumstances and conflict, emerged on dry land 634 days after the expedition began. Not a single man perished. Although they faced the same hellish conditions as Stefansson’s men did, they experienced a different fate. What made the difference? Shackleton’s calm leadership presence before his critics and naysayers. 

The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured this important leadership characteristic Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival.

“Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; never lost his optimism, and prepared for winter.” (J. Marcuson, Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry, New York: Seabury Books, 2009, Kindle ebook, loc. 1117, emphasis mine)

Shackleton exemplified a key quality needed for every leader: engage your critics. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

When our environment breeds anxiety and our critics try to stir up trouble, we can defuse this anxiety by calmly staying connected to them. Neuroscience actually verifies the biblical principle from Proverbs 15.1 that says, “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” It’s called emotional contagion. Others will catch our calmness which actually helps quiet the emotional centers in their brains responsible for anxiety and fear.

Men in Shackleton’s expedition noticed his calm, steady demeanor. When they were stuck on the ship, even one of his most pessimistic crewmen wrote these words in his journal.

“He is always able to keep his troubles under and show a bold front. His unfailing cheeriness means a lot to a band of disappointed explorers like ourselves. . . . He is one of the greatest optimists living.” (ibid, Kindle loc. 1182).

Shackleton keenly understood the importance of setting an example for his men on how to handle conflict and stress in a crisis. As you might imagine, living under such harsh conditions could easily cause arguments and disagreements. Yet those disagreements rarely disrupted unity because he developed an atmosphere that also encouraged dissent to be brought into the open.

Shackleton constantly faced four choices when confronted with dissident people, the same choices spiritual leaders face today:

  1. Pander and give in to critics to restore tranquility. Often because the critics are big givers or wield relational influence in our churches, we pander to them.
  2. Isolate or ignore critics, troublemakers and those with whom our personalities rub, thinking that if we don’t hear those voices, they will go away.
  3. Get defensive and power up to quiet the critic.
  4. Show courage and stay calmly connected to the critic.

Shackleton wisely chose the fourth option. Smart leaders do the same.

How have you managed the critics in your life?

(Taken and adapted from People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone. Copyright (c) 2014 by Charles Stone. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com.)

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7 Benefits of an Often Overlooked Planning Tool: the Pre-mortem

Jesus recognized the role good planning plays in life and ministry. He said, Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? (Luke 14.28) Unfortunately, lack of planning often torpedoes otherwise good ministry ideas. Scientist Gary Klein, author of The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work, offers a great idea he calls a pre-mortem. In this post I unpack 7 benefits a pre-mortem offers in planning.

planning tools

Dr. Klein says that a pre-mortem can increase the chances that our plan will succeed. In contrast to a post-mortem that we often perform after a plan fails, a pre-mortem is an exercise that teams do before they implement a plan.

By imagining that an event is over and that it failed, a pre-mortem can often surface potential problems that you can address and prepare for before you invest time and resources in an event or a plan.

In my next post I’ll give crucial questions to ask to make a pre-mortem successful.

But first, I’ve listed several benefits of a pre-mortem.

  1. A pre-mortem helps you fail on paper rather than in practice. A pre-mortem considers what might go wrong so you can plan to avoid those mistakes
  2. You can surface potential pitfalls in a safe environment. Before others get overinvested in the plan, considering the pitfalls beforehand makes it less threatening for a team member to voice a concern.
  3. A pre-mortem helps you value your team members by soliciting their ideas and thoughts. We all like others to feel that our voice matters. A pre-mortem reinforces that experience.
  4. You can help team members become more sensitive to potential problems as you roll out the plan. By discussing potential issues beforehand, your team is more likey to see potential issues when you do roll it out.
  5. You can increase the chances that you will avoid a painful post-mortem autopsy prompted by a failure. We’d all rather avoid autopsies.
  6. You can surface potential problems you might have otherwise missed. Pretended your plan has failed makes you think outside the box.
  7. ___________ (what would add as a seventh benefit?)

So, the next time you plan a big initiative, try a pre-mortem.


“I just learned 5 good reasons to conduct a ministry plan pre-mortem to avoid failure.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


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24 Words that Define a Leader’s Job

In this short post I suggest 24 words that define a leader’s job.

Vision casting

Problem solving

Giving feedback

Rewarding staff

Influencing others

Recruiting leaders

Developing people

Developing systems

Communicating well

Delegating workload

Relationship building

Establishing priorities

What would you add to this list?

What’s your strongest area?

What needs more attention?

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