The Difference Between Great Leaders and Leaders Who Appear Great

Do people respect you more or less the closer they get to you?  This is a question I’ve been pondering lately. We all have leaders we admire or respect from a distance. It could be a pastor, a business executive, a non-profit leader, an author, etc. We’ve learned from their preaching, writing, or speeches. We’ve seen the fruit of their ministry or business and admire their impact.

However, we’ve also heard of leaders who looked great from afar but led inner lives of turmoil. Maybe they got caught in an affair, made poor financial decisions, or their staff is exhausted from consistent stress and long hours. These leaders seem like they have it all together – if you don’t look too closely or get into their inner circle.

How does this happen? More importantly, how do we prevent it from happening to us as leaders?

How does this happen? Here are a few ideas:

#1 – We live in a culture that reveres and desires celebrities

We want to follow someone. Look at reality television or the gossip magazines at the checkout counter. We’ve built entire industries around seeking to know the intimate details of people we’ll never meet in-person. This attitude permeates the church with people putting more emphasis on the pastor than on God.

#2 – We put unrealistic expectations on leaders – especially church leaders

For some reason, we expect church staff to wake up each morning and immediately roll out of bed and into their prayer closet (maybe stopping for coffee beforehand). When we place such high expectations on leaders, they tend to hold people at a distance to maintain the illusion of spiritual perfection. “I can’t trust them to see the real me and not be disillusioned, so I’ll stay distant.”

#3 – We don’t like to admit our mistakes or that we don’t have all the answers

It’s humbling to say, “I was wrong and I’m sorry.” We want to have the respect of those who follow us, so we think that means we can’t own up to our mistakes or admit we don’t have a perfect answer (or even any answer).

What can we do to prevent this from happening to us?

#1 – Don’t feed the lie that you have a perfect life

If you walk into the office one morning after having to deal with cranky kids and an exhausted spouse, don’t put on a fake spiritual smile, say “I’m blessed!” when asked how you’re doing, and pretend everything’s okay. Don’t take out your frustrations on your team, but if anyone asks be honest. “Today didn’t start out that great so I need a few minutes to get focused.”

#2 – Be honest about your spiritual walk

If you’re not reading your Bible and praying for hours each day, don’t pretend this is required for all believers (it’s not, by the way). If you’re doing good some days with a quick prayer asking for wisdom and remembering a single verse you memorized years ago, it’s okay to mention that to your team. Don’t present that as ideal, since it isn’t, but be a little vulnerable with them. Let your team know you struggle with making time to spend with God too. Then share ways you’re working to correct the problem and ask them to hold you accountable.

#3 – When you mess up – own it

Were you in a bad mood and took it out on your team? Admit it and apologize. Did you get so excited about a new idea that you bulldozed your team and added a ton to their already full plates without asking for their input? Make it right. Depending on their level of spiritual maturity, they may try to make excuses for you and absorb your behavior. Make sure they know you were wrong and that you’re seeking to make things right.

#4 – Be accountable

Who can tell you “no”? Who feels safe to meet with you one-on-one and lovingly confront you? If 2-3 people don’t immediately come to mind, you have a problem. No matter how long you’ve been in leadership, no matter how solid your character or relationship with God, you must be accountable to someone else. Whether this is a Board of Directors, elders, or close friends who’re willing to “tell it like it is”, please protect yourself and those you lead by being accountable. It’s too easy to believe the accolades of people who’re depending on you for a paycheck or who see you as someone with spiritual authority. Find 2-3 people who don’t depend on you for anything, who you can trust to be honest and upfront with you. Andy Stanley stated at a recent Catalyst One Day conference that, “The more influential you become, the more accountability you should have.” I couldn’t agree more.

Leadership is a privilege and a responsibility. Especially in the church, you’re leading people who are placing their trust and respect in you. They see you as someone with spiritual authority. That is a weighty responsibility. It may not be fair or right for them to have such high expectations, but part of the burden of leadership is knowing they have those expectations and deciding how to handle it.

Periodically, ask yourself if people respect you more or less as they get to know you better. Maybe even ask a few people that very question. Let them know you want the unvarnished truth and thank them even if they tell you something that’s hard to hear. Let’s not become the emperor with no clothes. Let’s be leaders who people respect more the closer they get.

How do you make sure those you lead respect you more the closer they get?