This is the first of a two-part post by Michael Cheshire. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.
If my wife tells you she likes to run 5K races, don't believe her.
Oh, she has run her fair share of them, although rarely with any training, and often after signing up the day before. However, it isn't the run she loves; it's what goes with it. It's the free T-shirts and worthy causes that get her into the race.
Her closet is a museum on hangers; a rainbow of colored t-shirts spanning nearly every disease known to humanity. The vast majority, though, are for battling cancer. Breast cancer. Colon cancer. Cancer research for children. You name it; odds are she has the T-shirt. And I get it. Cancer is a brutal invader in our lives. It has taken some of our closest friends and family members.
I'm not a runner. But I still go to these 5ks and hang out at the finish line with the kids. I usually spend my time reading pamphlets on cancer as I try to score snacks from the race coordinators. At a recent run, I struck up a conversation with a doctor. Prompted by the cause the runners were supporting, our conversation turned to cancer. I liked him because he used small words that helped me grasp what the disease does to the body. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked him what I could do to avoid this particular form of cancer. He smiled and said, "Find it first."
For most cancers, the sooner it is found, the higher one's rate of survival. "The first tool is early detection" he stated. This may be simple, but it's wise. Identifying an enemy in your body quickly will boost your odds of defeating it.
But isn't this principle true for more than just physical disease? So many times I am a carrier of things (that if they grow) can harm my relationships, my walk with God, not to mention my dreams and calling. Since that conversation with the doctor, I've thought about attitudes in a different way. Looking back, I can see points where my harmful attitudes were left unchecked, and limited my growth or compromised my character.
Now let's be honest. Examining our attitudes is not something most of us find appealing. If introspection was interesting, there would be a show about it on A&E. But without it, our bad attitudes grow stronger, turning from feelings into ways of thinking that can shape our speech, thoughts, and actions.
Good or bad, attitudes are the driving forces in our lives. They can bring us to the peaks of success, or to the valleys of failure. And just like cancer of the body, they can destroy us if we do not detect them early. "Self exams" are vital. I know that I am predisposed to several persistent wrong attitudes. And I'm not alone. Most people I ask can name two or three attitudes they have to examine for and guard against. And since the attitudes of a leader often affect (or infect) those we lead, I would like to share three that leaders need to examine.
Few things profit us less than self-pity. You know how it feels. It's that strange desire to retreat and focus on how unfair our situation is. Life is rarely fair. When you are a leader it tends to be worse. A mentor of mine used to tell me when I was whining, "Michael, sometimes life stinks, so wear a helmet." These words have served me well. You don't have to be a leader long to understand that leadership is a contact sport. It should come with a mouth guard!
Leadership requires us to make decisions on a weekly basis. Some people will not like our choices, and even throw fits. Additionally, leaders often have to take the blame for others' failures. Thus, self-pity slips easily into our lives because it usually doesn't look like "pity" at all. It's disguised as self-preservation. Self-pity tells us that no one really understands what we are going through, that if we don't care for ourselves, no one else will. Self-pity convinces us to focus for just a little while on me. If self pity is entertained too long, it will invite its friends over: depression, exhaustion and isolation.
Self-pity is the kindest killer on earth. It will subtly sap strength, passion, drive, and purpose. It is to your life what cancer is to your health.
The cure for self-pity is responsibility. That's a great word when you break it down: Able to respond. When a setback occurs or adversity arises, we can influence whether we will progress or regress. Great leaders understand the need to take responsibility for a problem in their life or organization, even if it was not their fault. If I get a flat tire because I ran over a nail in the road, it may not have been my fault, but it is my problem now.
When things go awry, high level leaders work to fix it, whether or not they were caused the problem in the first place. It is when all hell breaks loose that you spot true leaders. True leaders summon strength in adversity. They own their thoughts in a crisis and inspire others to do the same.
As a pastor, I have had staff members miss an appointment with a member, or forget to return someone's phone call. Usually when this happens, our church will get a pretty heated call or email letting us know that we hurt them. When we failed to connect with them, they felt devalued. Many times, these shots are aimed at me despite the fact that I was not the one who forgot. But I am the one who has to call them and own the issue. I have to win them over and explain that they do matter, that we are all sorry, and would love nothing more than to make it up to them.
We all rise and fall together. When I make those calls, I am taking responsibility for the staff member as that person's leader. Sure, I have to get on the team member's case a bit, and set up procedures so it won't happen again, but playing the blame game here only strokes my ego and possibly feeds another's self-pity.
Feeling sorry for myself in these situations is immature. I know because I have had my fair share of pity parties over things like that. It never fixed anything. I'm learning that it's better to return a hit with a hug, that humility and responsibility are garments that look good on anybody. Strong leaders know that hurt people hurt others. When a leader refuses to give in to self-pity, they grow. You will win many battles in life by taking responsibility when others run.
This is the first of a two part post by Michael Cheshire.
Michael Cheshire is pastor of The Journey Church in Conifer, Colorado and author of How to Knock Over a 7-11 and Other Ministry Training (2012) and Why We Eat Our Own (2013)
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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