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Self-leadership: Leading From the Inside Out

By Eric D. Rust

Say the word leadership at a roundtable of spiritually gifted leaders and chances are the conversation will immediately turn to the task leaders perform in leading others. Church leaders spend most of their week leading. Yet, in our effort to become better leaders, we often overlook the biggest leadership challenge we will ever face — ourselves.1 We tend to neglect managing ourselves because self-leadership is much more difficult than leading others.2

Hardly a week goes by without our hearing that another leader has been disqualified from leadership. We blame this failure on sexual compromise, financial impropriety, the desire for power, or poor leadership. Those failings, however, are only the public symptoms of a deeper personal failing. If we look into the problem further, we usually discover that the leader neglected his personal life.

In his book Leading From the Inside Out, Samuel Rima states: “The way in which a leader conducts his personal life does, in fact, have a profound impact on his ability to exercise effective public leadership. There is a direct correlation between self-leadership and public leadership.”3

The New Testament writer, Paul, understood this concept well: “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).4 Paul understood that to be all God had called him to be he needed to consistently keep his life in order.

Importance of Self-Leadership

Leaders must care for, nurture, and manage their personal lives. In leadership circles, this is known as self-leadership. Effective leaders must invest more energy into developing their own leadership skills than in developing any other area.

Leadership expert Dee Hock suggests that self-leadership needs to occupy 50 percent of a leader’s time.5 What would happen if church leaders took Hock’s recommendation seriously and invested half of their week into self-leadership? To become the healthy leaders God desires us to be, we must develop personal mastery of our own lives.

Character Formation

Understanding personality and giftings, clarifying values, pinpointing strengths and weaknesses, improving communication skills, and effective time management are all important areas where leaders need to focus their energy. While there are dozens of facets to self-leadership, none are as critical as the leader’s character. Without character, leaders have nothing. Our character defines us. Only after we determine who we are can we know how to grow. For the Christian leader, character is the ballgame.

The absence of strong moral character will shipwreck a leader. Financial blunders can be repaired. Poor communication can be fixed. Leadership decisions that do not work out the way the leader promised can be salvaged. But character flaws can destroy a leader. Recovering from moral and ethical compromise is often impossible. Once trust in a leader is lost, it is rarely restored. People will only follow leaders who express the highest level of integrity.6

Andy Stanley says it clearly: “We are always one decision, one word, one reaction away from damaging what has taken years to develop.”7 Twenty or 30 years of faithful service to God can be destroyed with one compromising decision.

When a leader’s flawed character is exposed, the problem usually stems from his lack of integrity. Integrity is being on the inside who you claim to be on the outside.

Erwin McManus uses an analogy about a watermelon to describe integrity.8 You have probably bought a watermelon. As you stand in the produce section holding a watermelon, the only thing you can see is the watermelon rind. You thump the rind, and if the melon sounds hollow you buy it. When you check out, you spend your hard-earned cash on a watermelon when you can only see the rind. When you arrive home and cut open the rind, what do you expect to find inside? Watermelon. You trusted that the melon had integrity. What if you cut open the rind only to find a banana inside? That would never happen because a melon has integrity. A watermelon is always on the inside what it claims to be on the outside.

What about you? If someone peeled off your outer layer, what would he find? Would he find on the inside what you claim to be on the outside? Here we find the one advantage a watermelon has over people — by its nature, a melon has integrity. Integrity does not come naturally to people, even to leaders. It must be developed.

Leaders who practice self-leadership are keenly aware of the inconsistencies in their lives. Rather than ignoring these inconsistencies while they are small, they choose to align who they are with what they believe. They understand that life cannot be compartmentalized into tiny boxes. We have been created as whole beings. Who we are in private cannot be isolated from who we are in public.

As leaders, we must decide who we want to be and then align our lives so we become just that.9 This is not easy because the person you do not want to be is the person you will most naturally become if left to your own devices. Jesus said: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” (Matthew 16:25). Self-leaders must die to the natural tendencies inside them to become who God is calling them to be.10 God is calling us to become inside-out leaders — leaders who are defined more by who we are on the inside than by who we seem to be on the outside.

Because of the titles and perks church leaders often receive, it can be easy for pride to sneak into their lives. When church leaders fall victim to sexual sin or power plays, pride is often at the root. Romans 12:3 reminds us, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.” First Peter 5:5 cautions us: “God opposes the proud but favors the humble.”

Church leaders stay grounded and reminded of who they are when they practice the spiritual discipline of servanthood. When leaders are on their knees in service or have the serving towel draped over their arm, they are reminded that Jesus found His greatness in servanthood. Jesus never prided himself on His godliness; He found His status in servanthood. In His smallness He became great. Smallness and servanthood may not naturally be comfortable words for leaders, but they are words our Leader was comfortable with.

Acknowledging our weaknesses is another excellent way to keep pride at bay. Many leaders are unclear of their strengths and weaknesses. Admitting weakness requires personal security and humility.11 Leaders who practice self-leadership readily acknowledge their weaknesses. Instead of entertaining pridefulness by covering up their weaknesses, they admit them and invite others who have complementary strengths to help them manage their weaknesses.

Safeguarding Our Character

Church leaders must be masters of themselves because the stakes are too high. For business leaders, dollar signs hang in the balance. For church leaders, future ministry and eternity hang in the balance. As sad as it is to see a business or political leader fall victim to his own neglect, the price is always higher when a church leader falls.

Pat Williams, Christ-follower and vice president of the Orlando Magic, offers six ideas for safeguarding our character.12 These six guidelines serve as a useful grid for the church leader who desires to lead himself with excellence.

  1. Take time for consistent reflection and restoration of body and soul. Many church leaders maintain such a fast pace in their ministries that they find little time for themselves. Jesus modeled soul restoration by routinely leaving the crowds to spend time alone with the Father. Self-leaders create time on a regular basis to pray, journal, and read. A well-ordered heart is the best gift a leader can give his followers.

    In addition, leaders need to take care of their bodies. Physical health is a blind spot for many pastors. The Bible challenges us to honor God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20). Good health provides the energy and stamina to actively pursue God’s call. Eating well and exercising regularly should be a part of every leader’s lifestyle.
  2. When faced with an ethical choice or a temptation, consider the example you set for others. Think of all those who are watching you — children, friends, mentorees, and church members. How will your decision impact them? With church leadership comes the sacred gift of moral authority.13 Our moral authority can be lost in an instant. When temptation knocks, we must ask ourselves if saying yes to temptation is worth hurting those who look up to us.
  3. Make yourself accountable to a small group of trusted friends. Lone rangers risk burnout much more than leaders who are in relationships that provide accountability. Self-leadership is too big a job to be done alone. Leaders need to invite a small group of people whom they know and trust to check in with them regularly and ask the tough questions. All of us can lie to ourselves so often that eventually we begin to believe our lies. Friends are not as easily duped.
  4. Focus on integrity, not image. Leaders who cultivate their inner life will consistently rise above situations in life that would attempt to pull them down. Dr. Robert Terry, author of Reflective Leadership, observes that “the profound challenge in ourselves is authenticity — being true and real in ourselves, in our relationships, in the world.”14
  5. Grow deep in your faith. As Christ-followers, we believe God’s Spirit has the power to bring spiritual change to human hearts. Character development is too difficult a task for us to accomplish without the involvement of God’s Spirit. Nurturing our relationship with Christ and staying in tune with His Spirit keeps us dependent on the activity of God in our lives. The deeper we go into God’s love, the deeper our love for others becomes, and the greater protection from evil we experience.
  6. Deal firmly and uncompromisingly with character flaws and hidden sin. All leaders have a dark side. Some are people pleasers. Others desire to build a name for themselves. Some leaders have anger issues or codependent tendencies. These issues will affect a leader’s ability to lead. Bill Hybels asks leaders: “Who is responsible for resolving your interior issues so your church won’t be negatively impacted by your junk? You are.”15 Spiritual leaders must sort these things out. Our churches are depending on it.

Conclusion

On the final page of his book, The Next Generation Leader, Andy Stanley poses a great question: “What small thing in my life right now has the potential to grow into a big thing?”16 Poor character does not appear out of nowhere. It starts small — so small it is often not even noticeable. Eventually the small thing that was once unnoticeable becomes a huge thing that controls a leader’s life. Just like cancer in the human body, the best time to remove poor character is when it is still a “small thing.”

In God’s infinite wisdom He has chosen to place the future of the church in the hands of leaders. He has done so with clear expectations. He desires us to be exceptional leaders. He wants us to hone our leadership skills, to communicate effectively, and to manage our teams well. But above all that, God’s desire for His leaders is that they would be masters in the art of self-leadership.

ERIC D. RUST, lead pastor, Cedar Hills Church (Assemblies of God), Sandpoint, Idaho

Endnotes

1. Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 182.

2. Dee Hock, “The Art of Chaordic Leadership,” Leader to Leader 15 (Winter 2000): 20–26. Accessed from http://www.pfdf.org/leaderbooks/L2L/winter2000/hock.html on 13 April 2005.

3. Samuel D. Rima, Leading From the Inside Out: The Art of Self-Leadership (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 27.

4. Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, unless otherwise noted. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

5. Hock.

6. Hybels, 189.

7. Andy Stanley, The Next Generation Leader: Five Essentials for Those Who Will Shape the Future (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Publishers, 2003), 119.

8. Erwin R. McManus, Uprising: A Revolution of the Soul (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003), 70.

9. Ibid., 81.

10. Pat Williams and Jim Denny, The Paradox of Power: A Transforming View of Leadership (New York: Warner Books, 2002), 98.

11. Stanley, 22.

12. Williams and Denny, 125.

13. Stanley, 117.

14. Williams and Denny, 127.

15. Hybels, 192.

16. Stanley, 132.

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