Being a leader can be rough business and it’s not for the faint of heart. You’re constantly in the line of fire, not just from those outside your team, but often from within as well. If there is a team member unhappy with something, who do they complain to? You. If your team doesn’t achieve an important goal, who does your boss come down on? You. If another department leader is frustrated about a perceived lack of collaboration from your team, who gets an earful of feedback? You.
If you aren’t careful, the toxicity of these negative situations can seep into your soul and cause you to lead with a wounded spirit. I firmly believe that effective leadership is about who you are as a person—your values, beliefs, and character—and much less about what you actually do in terms of leadership techniques or practices. Leadership begins on the inside, and what’s on the inside eventually comes out. If your inner life is in order, healthy leadership practices will follow. If you’re leading with a wounded spirit, that will be clear as well.
Unfortunately, we’re often blind to the reality that we’re leading in a wounded capacity. We are so close to it that we don’t see it, and it may take someone else calling us out on our behavior for us to realize what’s going on. But if we pay attention and look closely, we can detect these warning signs of leading with a wounded spirit.
Bitterness – A strong, unrelenting hostility or resentment toward someone is a sign bitterness has taken root in your soul. Bitterness comes from never fully processing and moving on from a situation that harmed us. The situations are common, everything from being passed up for a promotion, having someone take credit for your idea, or being blamed unfairly for something that went wrong. These things happen every day in the workplace. Do you find yourself ruminating over past hurts? Are you preoccupied with resentful thoughts about another person? If so, bitterness has gotten a hold on you and you need to shake it loose. Be bitter or get better; it’s your choice.
Un-forgiveness – When we’ve been wounded, we often refuse to grant forgiveness because we feel like it’s letting people off the hook for their transgressions. In reality, choosing to not grant forgiveness is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. It does nothing but hurt ourselves and hold us back from healing and moving forward. Forgiveness is letting go of all hopes for a better past. You can’t change what happened but you can control how you move forward. Holding on to past hurts keeps your leadership effectiveness stuck in first gear and diminishes the positive impact you can have on others.
Sarcasm – Sarcasm is one of the more subtle, socially acceptable ways wounded leaders express themselves. Often masked in humor, sarcasm can range from friendly little jabs at someone to full-on passive-aggressive attacks. We get the word sarcasm from the Greek word sarkázein which means to “rend flesh” – the ripping, pulling, or tearing apart of skin and flesh. Isn’t that a beautiful word picture! But that’s exactly the intent of sarcasm, to cut someone down, to tear at their self-esteem, or knock them down a notch to let them know you’re just a little bit better. Leaders should be focused on building others up, not tearing them down. If you frequently use sarcasm to express yourself, I’d challenge you to examine the thoughts, feelings, and motivations behind why you choose to express yourself that way.
Negativity – Negative Nelly, that’s the term we use around the office for people who tend to see everything in a negative light. It doesn’t matter how good the idea might be, Negative Nelly always finds something to fault…it will cost too much, it will be too hard to implement, it’s not comprehensive enough, it’s too encompassing, it will take too long, it won’t last long enough…you know the drill. No matter what, you can’t please Negative Nelly. But more importantly, is that you? Are you Negative Nelly? Consider these questions to see if you might be letting negativity rule your leadership reactions: Is your first response to new ideas to find fault or explore how they might work? Is your default answer “no” or “yes?” Do you find yourself catching people doing something wrong instead of praising what they’re doing right? Critical, questioning, deep thinking and analysis should be a normal part of your leadership repertoire, but there is a time and place for it. If you find that negativity is your standard M.O., that’s a warning sign you haven’t dealt with underlying issues.
Apathy – Leaders can be wounded to a point where they give up. They may still show up to work and go through the motions, but their heart and soul is no longer in the job. They’ve quit and stayed. Apathy is contagious. It doesn’t affect just the leader, it affects everyone. Team members look at their apathetic leader and say to themselves, “If he doesn’t care, why should I?” I’ve seen once thriving leaders and teams slowly go downhill as the leaders experienced a series of challenges, dealt with them ineffectively, eventually grew tired and frustrated, then threw their hands up in resignation and chalked it up to “that’s just the way it is around here.” Apathy is the polar opposite of leadership. Leaders should be change agents, always on the lookout for how they can improve as individuals and how their teams can grow and become more effective.
All of us leaders are wounded in one way or another. Getting scarred from battle wounds is inevitable if you sign up for this leadership gig; you shouldn’t expect otherwise. That’s why it’s so important to find healthy, productive ways to process these experiences so you’re inner life as a leader is in good order…more on that in a future blog post.
Feel free to leave a comment and share your own experiences of leading with a wounded spirit.