A note from Kelly King: No matter where you are in your leadership journey, healthy leaders endure and finish well; we’re not just talking about physical health, but emotional and spiritual health. In today’s article, Casey Merrifield provides some excellent content every leader should consider. You don’t want to miss hearing Casey this year at the Women’s Leadership Forum November 8-10 as she leads two breakout sessions. The early deadline for registration is just a little over a month away and last year’s event sold out. Make plans now to join us in Nashville!
Healthy leadership. Is it even possible? What marks a healthy leader, and how can we make sure it lasts a lifetime?
Leaders come and go. In their wake, they leave a trail of victories and defeats. Some leave a legacy of honor and respect. But what happens when leaders fall? What happens when leaders, who at one time may have left an honorable legacy, end up leaving collateral damage in the wake of that legacy? How did they get there? What can we learn from their mistakes? What makes a healthy leader? How can we make sure it lasts for the long haul?
1. Healthy leaders are secure. They are constantly aware of their need to yield to the all-sufficiency of Christ for His protection and provision—for every need or desire. They don’t find worth and dignity in having a great title, a lofty position, or numerous followers. Their security rests in who they are in Christ, rather than the praise of men and women who applaud their success or promote them. They know in whom they have believed and are convinced that He is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to them (2 Timothy 1:12).
The pitfall comes when leaders begin to idolize security over the One who gives security. Believe me, this can be a struggle, especially if you have people-pleasing tendencies (hand raised here, folks). The praise of men and women, though inherently not sinful, can become a sinful place, and the craving to be understood, loved, respected, or vindicated finds prominence in a heart bent toward self-preservation rather than one yielding to the Spirit of God as their fortified tower (Proverbs 18:10).
Healthy leaders regularly ask: “What am I afraid of losing?”
2. Healthy leaders are confident. They are constantly aware of their need to put their trust in a sovereign Lord—for every drive and lofty ambition. Their strength is in the strong arm of the Lord (Psalm 89:13), rather than their own abilities. I honestly believe that those who follow Christ begin their Christian journeys with a heart-felt desire to change the world with the gospel, praying God would use any of their gifts for His glory.
The pitfall comes when leaders begin to idolize their God-given gifts over the Giver of the gifts. With a little success and maybe a positional advancement here or there, we are prone to an unhealthy appetite for advancing our kingdoms rather than Christ’s. We seek to prove ourselves through self-promotion, aligning with power players in whatever sector will advance our status or careers. We jockey for positions on boards or committees to build our resumes, hoping someone will pick us like it’s some elite dodgeball game. The race bares little resemblance to the one where our faith journey began, and we’ve forgotten that “without faith it’s impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). Instead of seeking the One who promises His reward, we beg for the rewards of man, and our seeking has once again found its way back to self.
Healthy leaders regularly ask: “What am I trying to prove? And to whom?”
3. Healthy leaders are humble. They are constantly aware that following Christ is an everyday battle against self-preservation so their actions and attitudes reflect a “willingness to hold power in service to others” (John Dickson, 2011, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership). It doesn’t forego power, but wields it rightly in another’s centered pursuit.
The pitfall comes when leaders idolize appearance over piety. We masquerade our security and confidence behind a wall of self-preservation, and we have an “appearance of godliness, but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). If we miss the all-sufficiency of Christ and His sovereignty as the dignity and strength of our lives, it wrecks any chance of true humility. Mark Strom says it this way in Arts of the Wise Leader: “Wise leaders hold nobility with humility. Overbearing ego and debilitating self-abasement are generally avoided in all wisdom traditions. Many traditions call for balance. I would suggest a further step, also found in the ancient wisdom writings: that you look beyond balance, that you embrace the paradox of strength in weakness to find your true weight as a leader.”
Healthy leaders regularly ask: “What am I trying to hide?
4. Healthy leaders are self-aware. They regularly look in the mirror and are honest with the realities of their self-preservation. They even invite others into this conversation and seek to find out “what it’s like to be on the other side of themselves.” Like David, they pray, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my concerns. See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the everlasting way.” (Psalm 139:23-24).
The pitfall is when leaders idolize words that tickle their ears, rather than the truth that could liberate their hearts. We surround ourselves with “yes people” and dismiss or make excuses for weaknesses when confronted with truth by those who are courageous to confront. We know what wisdom says, “The wounds of a friend are trustworthy, but the kisses of an enemy are excessive.” (Proverbs 27:6). We never graduate from the school of self-awareness. What we do with our reflection in the mirror determines the health of our leadership (James 1:23).
Healthy leaders regularly ask: “Can you tell me what it’s like to be on the other side of me?”
Do you want to leave a legacy of faithfulness? I do. Healthy leaders must be intentional about dying to self and living unto Christ every day. We must be honest about the idols of our hearts that preserve or promote self. We all have them, but we don’t have to continue to build on them. If we do, they are sure to crumble before us as the faulty structures they are, and our legacy for Christ will be marred. Instead, let’s run this race with endurance. Together. Throwing off everything that hinders us and the sin that entangles us. The writer of Hebrews tells us we have examples to follow. Let’s follow them. Not as perfect people, but as people who put their faith in the perfect One.
Church, it’s time we look in the mirror, be honest, and turn from our self-preservation. If you will, I can promise you this: there will be grace and mercy offered. For God “will not despise a broken and humbled heart” (Psalm 51:17).
Casey Merrifield, a native Texan, has made her home in Oklahoma thanks to a good Elk City man, whom she married in the spring of 2013. Her life has been full of adventure serving the Lord in full-time student ministry and Christian higher education in Texas & Oklahoma. She currently works as a Senior Associate for GiANT Worldwide, a global leadership consulting firm and serves on the State Women’s Leadership Team with Oklahoma Baptists. She is often involved with the women’s ministry of First Baptist Church, Elk City helping with their yearly IF:Gathering and leading Bible studies. She is enjoying married life with her husband, Scott and their dogs, Mex and Bodee.