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.
” 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.”
“Forgiveness is letting go of all hopes for a better past.”
Many wonderful sayings in this article. I am the leader of a church, a prayer center, and what is a “movement”. My entire challenge is to allow Jesus Christ to lead through me, and raise up other effectual leaders. If those “under me” don’t rise up to become my equal in all respects of all I have to give… I have failed in my mission to replicate myself in Christ in my gifts as best I am empowered of God by grace… and the call is “fully”.
I like that statement of leadership that it begins on the inside and eventually comes out. What I have told “my team” is that the gifts that are in me move through me when the relationship dynamics are “in synch”. Not only is it being… it is relating in being… so Christ can move through us with God receiving all glory… and those relationship dynamics functioning. I’ve told them that when I am the leader… instead of letting the Leader lead through me… it’s not leadership… it’s the leaven of the Pharisees… and we must all beware this human tendency.
I loved the “Forgiveness is letting go of all hopes for a better past”. Wow. Just wow. What futility… and backwards thinking to hope for a “better past”. Ridiculous!! LOL Thanks for pointing out foolishness… it’s truly humbling and strength to stop ruminating about the past… considering what a fool one is behaving as. That’s helpful!! Pride is our greatest problem. And realizing one is behaving as a fool… helps stop foolish behaviors.
Thanks for the wonderful feedback and I’m glad you found the article helpful. As you point out, one of our most important roles as leaders is to reproduce other leaders.
Thank you for this article. I googled “asking the question “ “ what does a wounded soul look like? And your article came up. The reason for my question is: I shared my testimony of how i met Jesus to a group of adult, teen challenge members about 100 of them. I was nervous but shared and felt it was well received but when I got home that night I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up praying and crying out to God. I felt this horrible pain in my chest and stomach area I was doubled over holding onto my stomach and in my minds eye I saw my soul..it was like several layers of skin had been removed from my chest and stomach area. I never felt such pain. I finally went to sleep around 5 am. Yes I have been through a lot of heart ache in my life but I have always been quick to confess sins and to forgive. I dont want to have gaping wounds on my soul when I stand to proclaim Gods goodness.
I appreciate your honest transparency. Sometimes peering into our soul can be an excruciating experience, especially if we come face to face with aspects of our personality or behavior that don’t align with our values. In the case of our faith, we are all sinners in need of a Savior, and we can’t help but fall short of God’s perfection.
If I may be so bold as to offer some advice…first, make sure you’re medically OK. You don’t want to ignore physical symptoms that may indicate something isn’t right. Second, God loves you and has forgiven you. You are perfect in his sight because he sees you through the blood of Jesus. Hold on to that truth.
A brilliant article, Randy.
“Nellys” as you call them are the most difficult ones to handle. They are host of all the other problems you listed, I believe. I am really an optimist but I never found a cure for them so far. I tend to avoid them and seriously think that such leaders are intolerable. The “silver tablet” problem is one that gets even more emphasized if you work for an external consultants. My customers literally could tell what I said about a certain subject and what shoes I wore two days ago. You either like the silver tablet or you don’t.
Have a great start into the week.
Thank you Brigitte!
Leaders who are Negative Nelly’s bring down their entire team and it’s incredibly difficult to turn the momentum around in a more positive direction. Many times the only solution is to find a new leader.
Thanks again for taking the time to leave a comment. I always appreciate your perspective.
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This happens more than we think. The wounded spirit begins to impact other areas of life as well. The wound spreads to home and community life. Finding the spirit to recognize the change is vital, as is determining how to “fix” ourselves. Do we leave the place we are? Do we try to change the culture, others, ourselves…? Tough questions so looking forward to your second part. Great post.
Thanks for your comments Jon. You are so right, our wounded spirit shows itself in all areas of our life and can actually become a crutch for us. We grow so used to living in a dysfunctional way that it becomes our expected reality.
Thanks for giving me food for thought for the next article!
Great post Randy. I’ve more than once caught myself falling into one if these mindsets. Sarcasm is a particular challenge for me when I become frustrated or tire of a particular problem that won’t seem to go away. Sometimes I know these are reactions to past pain or difficulties that are triggered in the present situation. When I stop to pay attention to my words or reflect on the day I recognize this isn’t helping me or the team to move forward. There have been some frank conversations where I have apologized to my team even thought they may have thought it funny or agreed with the sarcasm at the time. In the end I want them to recognize as I have that while it may relieve a little stress it only deepens the negativity and that’s not helping anyone. Many good reminders here.
Thank you Scott. I appreciate your transparency with your own struggles. We are all wounded in one way or another and recognizing our tendencies to lead with a wounded spirit is the first step toward managing it. You’ve modeled an excellent way to handle it – apologize and point your team toward the ideals you’re all striving toward.
Randy, I really like this article. It is amaizing for me because I realized that not only I was but also the worst, that I had a lider with a wounded spirit, who always said no since the beginning, someone who had an apathetic attitude… I learned how to deal with, but this situation made me feel miserable all the time and my leadership was every day downhill until it was depleted… Mistakes that I have done: to be un-forgiveness, sarcastic and when I felt very tired, to be an apathetic leader…
In my own experience, I think that it is difficult to realize when we have been wounded by ourselves… for instance when we are un-forgiveness person… “is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die”… imagine! taking poison every day!!!
Even though I am a professional focus on getting results, intelligent and strategic, I used to have a wounded spirit but now I undernstand what happened to me and what could make the difference between to be a successful or to be a disaster…
Now, that I had the opportunity to heal my soul, that I have made a beatiful personal work, I realize that I could be a good lider, but the most important, that I deserve and actually I have the opportunity to have a better life, that it is my choice… never give up… ” If your inner life is in order, healthy leadership practices will follow”… thank you for the article!
You are most welcome Eli. I’m glad you found the article helpful and I appreciate your feedback.
Randy – Having worked with leaders from all sectors over four decades, I fully concur that each must be able to know and manage what’s going on inside of themselves before they will be truly successful at knowing and managing others.
Thank you Nadine, I appreciate your comments. What’s going on inside of us can’t help but “leak out” eventually. Neglecting our inner world will eventually lead to our leadership actions falling short of their potential.
Thanks Randy, great article and one we can all learn from. I have seen the fall of many leaders because of a wounded spirit. Something we rarely talk about.
Thank you Dev! I appreciate your feedback. Hope all is well.
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Are you writing this from experience, because you are so wrong. A wounded spirit is not always from bitterness, negativity, apathy, sarcasm, and unforgiveness. Sometimes people have gone through so much in their life, and in such a short space of time something happens again to further wound, and perhaps they don’t have the right relationships around them to heal. You are so very wrong, and unless you are writing this from experience, it’s wrong to make others believe that it is the traits of unforgiveness, negativity, bitterness, apathy, and sarcasm that cause this.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Yes, I’m writing from experience…things that I have allowed to wound my own spirit and how I’ve seen others wounded. I didn’t say the characteristics I selected were the totality of what causes a wounded spirit, but they are certainly common and frequent characteristics with which leaders struggle. I hope that’s a helpful expansion on the thinking behind my article.
This was really interesting and I think it’s true in any situation not just the workplace. Thank you for this.
Randy, this is a helpful article for those who are working through emotional/spiritual struggles or dealing with those who are not even aware of their struggles or they refuse to acknowledge them. Thanks for this post.
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most people with wounded spirits arent conscious they are wounded. They soldier on through life “carrying their hurt and hurting those they love. But God is a God of Grace and as He enters our lives – He begins to bring healing and wholeness to the wounded spirit so we can find COMPLETION IN HIM COLOSSIANS 2;10 WITH HIM FILLING IN THE HOLLOWS OF OUR LIVES.
Even out of brokenness “Light will eventually shine”-That is the Good News of the Gospel.
Was looking for some takes regarding this topic and I found your article quite informative. It has given me a fresh perspective on the topic tackled. Thanks!
I’m glad you found it helpful!