Leadership’s Perfect Storm - The tempest threatening leaders’ souls

By Stephen W. Smith

Out there, just over the horizon, a storm is brewing. This storm is not a political storm. It is not a cultural war. It is a storm brewing deep within the soul of many leaders who serve in the marketplace or ministry arenas. We cannot see the storm now—at least our own storm—but it is brewing.

Due to the Internet and social media, we hear of storms taking down leaders and leaving carnage and havoc in their spheres of influence. It is a hidden, present danger that confronts leaders in the marketplace and ministry. It is what I call the perfect storm of leadership.

A “Perfect Storm” happens when several weather systems all converge making a super storm; a massively destructive powerhouse of a storm. Perfect Storms in the leader’s life happen when dark, powerful forces converge within the soul of the leader.

An unholy convergence of factors creates this Perfect Storm; the storm that threatens the landscape of leadership and the personal internal world of leaders today. Here are the four main forces that concern me the most in today’s realm of leadership:

  1. A success intoxicated leadership culture
  2. The cult of emphasizing leadership gifts and skills rather than integrity and character
  3. Unchecked power in positions of leadership
  4. The unchecked speed and busyness in the life of a leader

When these forces converge and galvanize in a leader’s soul, it all adds up to fragmentation and implosion in the leader’s internal world. Then the debris spins out of control, damaging others who live in the wake of the crashing leader. It’s messy. It’s costly. It’s deeply concerning. Now, let me address each of these factors to help explain how a Perfect Storm in Leadership builds up through time.

Intoxicated with Success

One of the dangers in today’s leadership culture is that leaders who achieve “success” quickly can become intoxicated by their own egos. They can develop an over-inflated idea about who they are and what they can do. Their wake, like the wake behind a boat moving down a river, becomes larger than life and can topple the red canoes and yellow kayaks out for a nice paddle on a sunny afternoon.

Leaders constantly need to redefine “success.” Numerical success is shallow, and not longstanding, when there is no solid foundation to stand upon. As we grow and mature, our understanding of success should morph because we learn to view people, life, God and money in different ways. Wise leadership understands that not only is a leader on a chronological journey of adding up the years, we are also on an internal journey of maturing; growing deeper and becoming wise.

The American philosopher and theologian, William James, reminded us that “moral flabbiness” contributes to the “goddess of success” that many of us tend to worship. James goes on to call the worship of the goddess of success our “national disease.” He wrote these words at the end of the 19th century. The warmth of admiration, unending energy and flirtations with power, without knowing the dark side, makes for an unholy trinity that many leaders can begin to worship and revere.

The Cult of Leadership

There is no shortage of books, seminars and training events to help leaders improve their skills. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. The mystique, fascination and allure of leadership and what leadership is or could be, has created a certain cult that’s all the buzz: “What’s new?”, “Who’s new?”, “Who’s ‘trending’?” shapes our ethos. These questions and more form a thin platform for leaders to stand upon. However, the ice is cracking when we do not grow our souls to assume leaders’ high-profile roles. A certain corrosion of character seeps in slowly. It’s never a quick fall from the pinnacle of leadership. It’s a slow and steady leak in the soul of a leader that helps them justify their means, misuse their power and fortify their positions. A crisis happens in time and through time. The antidote to this crisis will also require time, a commodity leaders so often don’t take into account during their leadership maturation.

Charismatic leaders should first make us wary and guarded rather than making us want to sign up too quickly as a follower. We should think through age, experience and soul maturity as much as we do a resume’ of accomplishments. This is not to question that some leaders do have an amazing amount of polish, shine and show. We know this. But polish, shine and show are not a part of spiritual leadership. They are not the fruits of the Spirit. Spiritual leadership is shaped by downward, not upward mobility. It is formed by a soulful humility, grounding and knowledge of the inner battle that happens in every leader’s soul, regardless of the venue for that leadership.

Unchecked Power

In today’s world of leadership, we might think that adding more accountability is the solution. It may be in some circles. I would offer the words “more accessibility” rather than “more accountability.” I’ve seen accountability fail more times than I care to recount here. But building a culture of accessibility helps leaders learn to become curious about their dark side of leadership as well as their light and visible side.

Accessibility invites curiosity about the brokenness in our story, from childhood wounds and birthing character. And we can become curious about the hubris of a leader’s soul—the stuff that runs countercultural and sometimes counter-intuitive. Being accessible, and remaining accessible to grounded, trusted voices who embody truth and self-awareness is vital to health. This means allowing someone older, wiser and more mature to poke around a bit in the quadrants of a leader’s heart—to just see what is there.

The poet Mary Oliver reminds us, “The heart has many dungeons. Bring the light! Bring the light!” Accessibility means gaining light, and more light from every trusted source from which it can be gathered. Accessibility is not isolation. It is about finding light; holding the light forth in a dark world and sometimes dark hearts. It is not hiding behind the doors of our offices. It means an openness and transparency that is vital and necessary for healthy leadership.

Every leader needs more and more light as we age and grow up into our roles. A flashlight of light from one book, or one stripe of leadership, is not enough in today’s complex world. This past year, I completed the “Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius.” I’m 64 and felt the need to find more light than I had gathered thus far. I stepped outside my theological boxes and found freedom—a freedom I was thirsty for at this stage of my life. Through this, I had to dig into my “core sin,” my false self, and my preferred mode of acting when under pressure. It was life-changing, and I’m finding I need my life to change more these days. Though I’m not a Catholic, the light was available to me despite my Baptist roots, and I’m the better for it.

Accountability is somewhat easy to navigate, and individuals can learn how to manipulate their way through hard questions that are expected and routine. I was in an “accountability group” once where we were invited, and expected, to share our secrets. Yet, a friend in my group was having an affair that got covered up, even though we met every Tuesday morning for three years. After all, “the heart is deceitful” (Jer. 17:9, ESV).

Accessibility means a curiosity of all things dark and deceitful and all things unexplored. This means being curious of our motives, deep longings and unfulfilled dreams. These all need to be explored, and not simply for management feedback and “results.” When we are accessible to counselors, mentors, spiritual directors and deep friends we can explore the warning lights that may be going off, or areas where we just “sense” the need for some attention. This takes time, an ingredient we tend to sacrifice in our ascent to the top these days.

Pace, Speed, and Busyness

The Chinese word for “busyness” means “heart annihilation.” We are literally killing ourselves through the speed in which we are living and all that we are trying to accomplish. Many leaders run their lives on empty—believing that inner emptiness is all there is. Wrong. We are doing way too much, and what’s worse, we don’t know how to stop or live within our limits. A busy leader often lives in fifth gear, having stripped their soul of all the lower gears. It’s as if you can almost smell the burnt odor as fretful leaders move around town. The nonstop, ever busy and burned out soul of a leader’s life is a clear sign that dark clouds are brewing. The storm is just ahead.

Leading without limits is not the answer. We cannot give 110 percent, because we simply do not have 110 percent to offer. We’re human, right? Or have we become human machines fueled for doing, more than being? Learning to recognize the unhealthy pull to always “yes” and the freedom to practice saying “no” is a journey, an inner journey that leaders can, and should, take.

Exhaustion is not a marker of the abundant life. A leader simply cannot give what a leader does not have. It’s that simple. When we embrace this spiritual principle, we give ourselves permission to, “put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we assist someone beside us” as the flight attendant always reminds us. An exhausted leader is dangerous, because an exhausted leader is a leader who does not know how to live life within their limits. They do not know how to live life in a sustainable rhythm that fuels one’s soul. They do not know how to say “no” in order to say “yes” to their own soul and family.

One of the major dilemmas and trends I am seeing is this: Leaders tend to see themselves as a messenger who delivers a message rather than someone who must embody the message they deliver. In short, there is a disconnect happening in leaders’ souls which enables them to lead, preach, teach and manage without living the very life they are teaching. It’s deeply concerning. They are saying one thing but in their private lives, they know, (and they do know,) that they are not living the message. They are in a role, but they feel like they have no soul.

This causes a huge conundrum. Role and soul confusion is almost always at the core of a leader’s demise. Do we know who we are apart from our role? Answer this core question and you will be well on your way to preventing the havoc of any series of storms that cross your path.

The unhealthy leader lives in shame because they feel, “Not only am I not doing enough – I amnot enough!” The fuel for the unhealthy leader’s speed and inner fodder is found right here. The unhealthy leader lives with shame. The leader can feel like a hypocrite, but they have no one to whom they can confess their hypocrisy. This raises another issue. Gifted leaders who run their tireless work on the speed of their own adrenalin tend to be too insulted for anyone to be a real confessor. It’s a symptom indicating burnout is happening.

Too much aloneness is never good. How can a leader really confess their inner world in today’s spheres of leadership when something has happened? We’re not set up to be real sinners as leaders. We are set up to be perfect, to create illusions and to guard the illusions we have constructed. The crisis is systemic and requires help on multiple fronts. Rather than being transformative, leaders are transmitting their illness into organizations. Why? Because the leader, herself or himself, remains untransformed at the soul level. Healthy leadership begins with, and remains, soul work throughout the vocational journey.

The leader can live their life in a silo—no one able to penetrate the walls of image, power and prestige they have erected. There seems to be no way for the leader to feel safe to emerge with all the darkness they feel inside. They live with marriages in trouble, faith that is shallow and a lifestyle that is out of control. There is a self-built wall of protection that they must project because they think, “If anyone really knew how bad of a situation I am actually in, I’d be fired. And I can’t be fired. So, I will project the message, but I will not live the message.” They think; “I will not live the message because no one has truly ever shown me how to live, how to actually embody the message.” This is a crisis for the leader and what’s more, it is a bigger crisis for those of us who follow such leaders.

The messenger must learn to embody the message or else they will implode. Roles are not sustainable. We change, retire and reposition ourselves throughout our entire vocational journey. But the soul is forever. So, we must learn to care for the soul—not just the role. It’s really that simple and that alarming. This is precisely one of the major concerns of Jesus, who said: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matt. 16:26)

Somewhere along the way, every leader must learn to ask, “What am I losing by all of my gaining?” This question gives leaders accessibility to their own hearts. This question when asked in a safe environment for the leader, allows the leader to lament some of their choices, examine their motives, and make a course correction in the long arduous journey of leadership.

Becoming aware of the forces making up Perfect Storms is essential. Exploring this article with your friends or teams could help lance the issue, release some pressure, and give you courage to explore Perfect Storms brewing in your organizations that might be elusive but there. This will give you the groundwork to readily and courageously dismantle the storms before they do their damage.

This article written by Stephen W. Smith was published in the national magazine, “Outcomes” for the Christian Leadership Alliance September 2019. Because of the significance of the message, we wanted to share this with all the readers of the Potter’s Inn Journal in this issue.