I was sharing tea with my mentor at his home, seeking wisdom on how to deal with a series of new ministry challenges. He listened for a time, then held up his hand to signal a pause. He lifted the teapot and poured into his cup until it overflowed into the saucer. Then he held up the saucer and said,
Ministry to others happens from the saucer. Make sure your cup is overflowing.
Only people who are caring for themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually can sustainably lead wisely. We must be self-controlled (Prov. 25:28; 2 Tim. 1:7), think clearly (1 Cor. 2:16), make decisions, and evaluate options. I’m envious of people who claim to have an inner voice – I have whole committees in my head, many voices to manage, and too many are whiners. It’s genuine work. There are tougher days when we’ll need to spend 40 percent or more of our energy in self-leadership.
Your organization has its own demographic challenges – aging parents, children at various transition points, health challenges, job and unemployment stresses, and more. Consider yourself number eleven on someone’s list, because they have at least ten things more important than you are.
Leading others is substantially easier when you consistently invest enough energy in self-leadership. To invest energy means to expect a greater payout over time – I put X in and will receive more than X in returns. Too few leaders have grasped this essential truth: Discipline brings freedom.
Let’s look at some self-leadership disciplines.
Engage in Reading and Study
We are people of The Book. We are students of The Word. Reading is a skill and a leadership craft. Read deeply. Read widely. Passive readers reap fewer benefits; take notes on what you read, and discuss with others. Found something worthwhile? Read it again and again to extract and assimilate it.
Study is not limited to reading. You can be a student of how others behave, of the natural world, of mediums of communicating facts and ideas, of a craft. The point is to consciously observe and ask questions in order to understand more deeply.
Practice Physical and Spiritual Discipline
Our bodies are our vehicles to serve others as part of a community. We should be good stewards of God’s creation, including our bodies. Very, very few people who don’t know what they should do for improved health, especially diet and exercise. The self-leadership opportunity is to consistently do what we know.
In addition to physical discipline, it’s important to cultivate spiritual disciplines. Prayer, meditation, confession, memorization, forgiveness, hospitality – all these must be intentionally practiced. Build them into your schedule.
Most of us “know” far more than we can “do.” (This has been called the Knowing-Doing Gap). Sports and military teams learned long ago that under pressure you revert to the level of your training and practice, not your level of knowledge. That’s why you practice on the CPR dummy and learn to drive in actual cars. Adopt the same mindset to train yourself for spiritual strength.
Determine Your Mindset and Responses Ahead of Time
Winston Churchill was famous for witty responses in tense situations and being powerfully calm when people shouted at him. There are multiple examples during WWII when people were surprised and shocked by turns of events, and he provided an apt word or decision in the moment. Very few people saw him lose emotional control.
This wasn’t an accidental gift. Churchill systematically prepared privately for public situations. He rehearsed and practiced quips and comments. He thought through possible events and decided on his best response if that happened. In effect, Churchill pre-decided what he would do. This gave him power in the crucial moment to do exactly the right thing.
How many times have you regretted what you did or said? In the heat of surprise, your immediate emotional reaction has a low probability of being the best possible reaction. But, prepared leaders are more likely to have productive and useful reactions, even in emotionally-charged situations.
Leaders must develop the regular practice of pre-deciding how to respond to challenging situations. We can pre-decide our mindset that shapes our priorities. The example of the apostles in the book of Acts strongly suggests that they had pre-decided how to handle difficult situations. Pressured to conform rather than obey God? Speak the truth calmly to authorities and accept the consequences (Acts 5:29). Unjustly jailed? Sing and pray (Acts 16:25). Trapped in a seemingly endless storm at sea? Give thanks to God so that all can hear and be encouraged by your faith (Acts 27:21-36).
As followers of Jesus, we should honor others above ourselves (Rom. 12:10). We unselfishly serve others, especially those who cannot repay us (Luke 14:7-4). We do not return evil for evil (Rom. 12:17). We are committed to bringing gospel peace and joy into difficult situations. These are foundations for pre-deciding how we will think, speak, act, and react.
This interview explains more if you want to learn more practical ways to use pre-deciding as you manage projects and teams.
You owe it to yourself and to your organization to invest in self-leadership. Your true freedom awaits!