Looking up, back, and around (learning to lead yourself).

“From our own observation and painful personal experience, we know that the cleanest way for an organization to bring you down is to let you bring yourself down.”[1]

Many church leaders are struggling with the challenges and demands of ministry life. Church leadership is a difficult and exacting work. But, the ‘external work’ is not the leader’s greatest threat. The greatest threat comes from a lack of attention to the ‘inner work’ needed. Leading others begins by learning to lead ourselves. 

In “Leadership on the Line”, Heifetz and Linsky warn that we can damage our ability to bring transformation in an organisation by failing to pay attention to ourselves. The authors state, “We get caught up in the cause and forget that exercising leadership is, at heart, a personal activity. It challenges us intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.”[2] Could that be you right now?  Are you ‘caught up in the cause’ and forgetting that first business is to lead yourself? 

This article offers a practical focus on learning to lead yourself well. We all need to build capacity for ongoing personal transformation. We must diligently support our health and functioning amidst the stressors of ministry leadership. I invite you to step back and observe your instinctive appetites and habitual ways of operating. Edwin Friedman notes that “Mature leadership begins with the leader’s capacity to take responsibility for his or her own emotional being and destiny.”[3]  Let’s consider three practical ways to ‘take responsibility’ in self leadership. I call them looking up, looking back, and looking around.

Looking up:

The most important quality we bring to leadership is the reality of our life in God.  Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Abiding in Christ is the life source of Christian leadership. It is the first question relating to self-leadership. It is the question of the presence of Jesus amid our leadership. We want others to enjoy God through our service.  But we also want to take time to enjoy God ourselves. What does enjoying God look like in your leadership and life right now? 

Take time now to ‘look up’. Stop, pray, and pay attention to your soul.  Perhaps you could take this one step further?  The early Wesleyan bands would commit to asking each other the question, “How is it with your soul?” Think of one person, or a group you meet with, and invite them to explore this question with you.  Discuss together the things you do that bring your soul closer to God. Talk about the things you do that are distancing you from your Lord. Talk about the spiritual disciplines that nurture your soul: prayer, scripture, worship, sabbath, friendship, play and exercise. Discuss what needs adjusting to grow your capacity to ‘abide’. 

Looking back:

We each show up to leadership with our history. I wonder if you have ever done a personal and emotional autobiography with the purpose of exploring your history prompted needs, triggers, and drivers? What are earthquake events that have occurred in your life that influence your leadership today?  How have these events affected you, and how have you processed and learned from them?   This current chapter of your life is part of a much longer story.  Have you read and understood your story well, up to this moment?

Revisiting our history is an invitation to celebrate the influences that currently energise us and bring joy. It may also bring us in touch with areas of pain or discomfort that need to be noticed and explored. Our past is never dead and buried.  The heart still beats, and the lungs still breathe.   

Take time now to ‘look back’. If you haven’t intentionally paid attention to your history, why not start now?  Imagine someone asked you to retell the big moments of your life in 10 minutes. Which moments would you pick?  Why would you pick those? What impact do those moments still carry? Where does the story carry hints of redemption?  Where are there recurring patterns of frustration, pain, or disappointment? Your leadership today carries the DNA of your past. If you haven’t yet, it may be time to do some personal history work, lest you be doomed to repeat.   

Looking around:

How do others experience you? How do others feel when you walk in the room? What words would they use to describe you? Often, we can guess the answer to these questions, but do we really know? “Social awareness” is a crucial dimension to the functioning of a leader. Understanding and managing our impact is a skill to learn. 

Social awareness involves being able to notice and respond to what is happening for others as they encounter us. We limit our self-understanding if we don’t seek intentional feedback from others. Lack of healthy feedback is a sure fire way to develop what we sometimes call ‘blind spots’. It’s our blind spots that so often hold us back in becoming a better leader. 

Take time now to “look around”. If you haven’t intentionally sought feedback to discover your blind spots, why not start now?  But don’t be indiscriminate. Feedback from the wrong people can be destructive. So, ask yourself, who are my trusted people that have my best interest at heart?  Once you have come up with a couple of names, go to them and ask a simple but vulnerable question. “What’s one thing you see me doing–or failing to do–that’s getting in my way?”[4]

You may find that asking the feedback question is too difficult. If so, begin the practice of intentionally looking around and you will notice informal feedback from those in your life. Watch carefully and observe how you are impacting others.  If you notice patterns (both verbal and non-verbal), it might be time to take some notes.

The journey of learning to lead others begins with the challenge of learning to lead ourselves. Looking up, looking back, and looking around requires vulnerability. But a vulnerability of this kind is vital to growing as people and as leaders. It is the business of paying attention to our soul, our history, and our impact. Take time to pay attention. 


[1]  Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, 1st ed. (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2002), 163.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2017), 203.

[4] Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Penguin, London, UK, 2015), 258.


Written by Jonny Weir