The danger of your own reflection
I used to think that the greatest threat to a young leader was poor communication skills, lack of passion, poor relational skills, lack of attention to detail, etc. But the older I get, the more I believe that the greatest threat to a young leader's success is his own reflection. I'll try to explain...
The painting above is of Narcissus, created in the late 1500's by an Italian painter named Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The story of Narcissus finds its origins in Greek mythology and tells the story of a young man who fell in love with an image he saw in the water, and ended up losing his life because he couldn't have what he had been infatuated with - his own reflection.
Having served in full-time student ministry for the better part of a decade, I've watched as parents instilled in their children the idea that the world revolves around them. I know it's not a new problem, but I think it's a uniquely American problem. If we're not careful, Jesus isn't really seen as the substitute for sin, but the ultimate life coach who helps us unlock our biggest dreams and success.
The scary part of the American Dream is that it paints us as the starring role in our own stories. Success becomes about how much you can get, how far you can go, how fast you can get there, and how big you can build it. We're taught to chase this success and pay whatever price it might require. I heard Francis Chan say once that we shouldn't be afraid of failing, but of succeeding at things that don't really matter."
The story of Narcissus hits close to home for me. I spent too many years looking for my identity and worth in the wrong places. I used to think that if I got enough degrees, if I got the right titles, if I could stand under a really bright spotlight, if I could get around the right people, then someone would see my value and talent, choose me and put me on the team. My stock value rose and fell based on my performance. To sum it up, I was building my identity around something I could lose, and I was gaining nothing. Leadership at times was more about how I was performing than how others were growing.
I'm grateful for the eyesight and self-awareness that God has granted me in the last few years to be able to see this in myself. As I've been recovering from an addiction to the approval of others, I've also noticed just how widespread this addiction really is in the lives of other leaders. Like Narcissus, if you aren't careful, you'll find yourself in love with your own reflection.
So how do you protect yourself from the poison of your own reflection?
- Remember where your identity is anchored: If you're looking for your identity in the approval of others, you'll never find rest in who you really are. There will never be a day when you'll make 100% of the people happy. Stop measuring your success on the bar graph of someone else's happiness. If you're going to lead, you have to be willing to speak truth, and sometimes truth unsettles the best of us. Truth usually threatens the comfort we've settled into. The more your identity is built around the happiness of others, the less truth you'll speak for fear of making someone unhappy. God is happy with you because of Jesus. The work has been done. You are loved and accepted. Because Jesus has done the work to please God for you, you're now free to love others. The Gospel frees you from loving others to get something from them (that's called manipulation). You have the acceptance you long for, so love others where they are. You're going to disappoint them at times, but that's okay, because you're identity is no longer based on what they think about you. Loving others > your performance
- Surround yourself with friends, not just fans: Fans tell you what you want to hear. Friends tell you what you need to hear. Truth has a funny way of shining lights on our blind spots. Rarely will a leader find his blind spots on his own. We need faithful friends who aren't afraid to speak about what we can't see in ourselves. If all you hear from those around you is "yes" then either you aren't asking the right questions, or you don't have genuine friends around you. True friends aren't afraid to answer the difficult questions. True friends aren't afraid to ask you the difficult questions.
- Choose carefully who you listen to and who you allow to speak into your life: It's easy to anchor your identity in the applause of others. It's also easy to defeat yourself by becoming fixated on one critic or criticism. If you accept every criticism as gospel truth, you'll stop taking risks. When you stop taking risks, you'll end up in a rut of mediocrity. The Gospel frees us from playing it safe. Surround yourself with people who aren't swimming in the stream of your hype.
- Get out from behind the mirror: I've been around too many leaders who hide behind a locked door "making decisions." They'll justify it by saying "we're simply too big for me to spend time with everyone. If I spent time with people I'd never get anything done." If the only time you see people's faces is when you're under a spotlight or sitting around a conference table, something's wrong. Genuine leadership has more to do with relationships than platforms and decision making. It's hard to lead people you don't know. It's hard to know people you don't spend time with. Make sure you're spending quality time with real people. Real people provide the best reflection of who you really are. Maybe you are leading at a high capacity. Maybe there isn't time to spend with everyone you lead. But I know this, you'll make time for what's most important. Maybe you can't spend time with everyone this week, but what if you carved out time to spend with a few different people each week? I can't remember very many of the decisions that my role models made, but I remember the time they spent with me investing in my life.
- Be the best listener in the room: The greatest gift you can give someone is the gift of being heard. When people feel heard they feel loved, when people feel loved they feel like they belong. You can't be a great communicator if you're always talking. The best leaders I know ask really great questions. The next time you're with someone, ask them questions about how they're really doing, and after they respond say "Tell me more." You'll be amazed at the opportunities God will give you to love and encourage. Most of the people I'm around aren't struggling because they don't know the answers, they're struggling because they wonder if anyone really believes in them.
- Help others win: If you're looking for ways to help others around you succeed, you'll spend far less time in the mirror worrying about how you'll succeed. The glorious thing about this is that as you help others succeed, you'll rise with them. The older I get, I'm less and less concerned with how I can get somewhere, but who will be there to replace me when I'm gone. I want to do everything in my power to help the generation coming behind me. Our future rests in the hands of those young leaders.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. What advice what you give to young leaders on this topic?