At our church, I lead a team of over 20 staff and volunteer leaders. One of my key responsibilities is implementing and protecting the culture in which we have purposefully chosen to live. I understand that culture is set by the consistent practices and behavior of the leaders of the organization and reinforced through the managed expectations of the teams working around them.
Early on, we chose certain core values that would define the way we treated one another. One core value was building and protecting healthy relationships—the choice to trust, honor one another, and cultivate heart connection through communication, understanding, and vulnerability. Another core value we have chosen is greatness—the choice to celebrate, equip, and release each person into their unique greatness, empowering them to grow in their gifting so they can serve God and man with excellence.
Many of the conversations or confrontations I have with our team members happen when they behave in a way that violates our values. If I see that the goal of healthy communication is not being achieved, if there is disconnection happening between the staff, or if they lose sight of the greatness in another and begin to move in dishonor, we will have a conversation with the goal of dealing with any heart issues that have come up and resetting behavior back to our agreed-upon values.
So, what happens when I, as the leader, violate the culture?
Yes, I Was the One Who Dropped the Anxiety Bomb
Recently, I made one of the biggest messes I have made in the four years working in my current role. I made and implemented some staffing decisions without giving the team proper notice that some major changes were coming.
While the decisions were good, the execution was poor. Some team members came to work one day and discovered that their job responsibilities had fundamentally changed. In my enthusiasm to expand the team and better situate people in roles that fit their strengths, I had mistakenly expected that everyone would share my feelings about the changes. However, those affected were not excited. Instead, they felt surprised, betrayed, and hurt.
In a culture that is built on trust, the lack of clear communication or opportunity to understand the decision was a serious breach of trust.
Instantly the impact on the team was obvious. One team member withdrew and isolated to process his hurt. Another came directly to me and verbalized the betrayal she was experiencing. Both were considering leaving. On a team the size of ours, every member is impacted when one of us is struggling, so the whole team was experiencing at some level the anxiety and disconnection that had invaded the atmosphere.
The Urge to Self-Preserve
As I experienced these reactions from the staff, my initial desire was to defend myself and save face. A narrative of blame-shifting and self-justification started to run through my mind and heart that sounded something like this:
“You were completely within your rights to make that decision.”
“When you are a leader it is impossible to keep everyone happy. Sometimes you just have to be the bad guy.”
“How can they not see that this is an excellent solution for some of the problems we have been facing? They are only thinking of themselves.”
“They are only hurt because there is a place of brokenness that has been revealed. They probably need some healing.”
“It was obvious that this was going to happen. All the signs were there. What is going on in them that they didn’t see it?”
When I finally stopped and took notice of these thoughts, I recognized that they were all rooted in the fear-driven urge to preserve myself. Digging deeper, I identified my fear:
I was afraid that my team would see me differently as a leader and no longer respect and follow me. As the leader who was so invested in building culture, I didn’t want others to see that this time, I had been the one to violate our values. How could I call others to a higher standard if they saw me make mistakes? I wanted to preserve the image of a perfect leader who flawlessly demonstrated our culture.
Once I had named my fear, I knew that I had an important choice to make. If I continued to run with it, I would make my own needs and desires my primary point of concern rather than serving the needs of those around me, the truer demonstration of leadership.
My other option was to bring my fear before God, identify the lie that was driving it, and replace it with the truth, so I could humble myself, clean up my mess, and restore my connection to those who had been hurt.
Vulnerable and Authentic
I chose the second option. And it turned out that the lie driving my fear was that culture can only be established by a perfect leader. The truth that replaced this lie was this:
There is no such thing as a perfect leader. Culture is established by a vulnerable, authentic leader.
Trust is built in a team when, beginning with the leader, team members become unafraid of acknowledging the truth about themselves—their strengths as well as their fears, weaknesses, and mistakes. When a leader can readily say, “I was wrong and I am sorry,” humbly adjust his or her behavior, and ask for help when necessary, the team learns that it is safe place to grow, and be honest about imperfection.
As people become free from the fear of making a mistake around you as a leader, they will no longer waste time and energy masking their problems. This opens the opportunity for them to learn to partner in the process of taking responsibility for their mistakes and growing from them as result. Team members also champion one another in the process of development rather than withdrawing from one another when weakness is revealed, which strengthens connection on the team.
Thankfully, the staff members impacted were gracious in the process I had to go through to clean up my mess. They allowed me the opportunity to understand how my decisions had impacted them, forgave me when I repented, and then wrestled with me to understand why I had chosen to make the changes that had happened. We were able to restore connection and trust, and as a result of navigating the challenge together, we have all grown in freedom from fear and strength in relationship.
Every healthy leader must overcome the pressure to live up to the myth of perfection! For our own sake and sake of those we are leading, let’s lean in to every opportunity we have to be authentic about our mistakes and struggles and vulnerable about our need for help. It may not be fun in the moment, but it produces freedom and health.