Chapter OneTHE DISCIPLINE OF
Harold didn't quite see it coming. The young pastor had enjoyed
phenomenal and early success in the ministry. Every assignment
he had attempted went well. His reputation for being an effective
leader grew right along with the church he had planted. However,
without Harold realizing it, the church crossed a threshold.
It outgrew him.
Harold was unaware of some basic truths about himself, for
example, his tendency to micromanage at the same time that
he resisted accountability. The first problem drove his staff
crazy and led to constant turnover that greatly reduced his
congregation's capacity to sustain ministry momentum. The second
shortcoming-his unwillingness to be accountable-eventually
got him in hot water with the church's key leaders. When the
church was small, Harold could make unilateral, on-the-fly decisions.
But when the church numbered hundreds, with dozens of
leaders involved and vested in their own ministries, Harold's
decisions rippled out into unanticipated consequences. Eventually,
his shortcomings caught up with Harold. Leaders and many
in the congregation questioned his credibility and lost trust in
him. Eventually, attendance and membership began to decline.
Harold was bewildered by this turn of events in his ministry.
He knew it wasn't working anymore, but he didn't know why.
Yet he plunged ahead, doing all the wrong things. In his frustration,
Harold began making even more decisions on his own,
adopted a more frenetic pace, and became more anxious and
demanding-all of which alienated even more people who could
have been great partners. His own fears about his ineffectiveness
and what was going on in the church translated into a refusal to
receive feedback, which drove him into a corner and accelerated
his demise as a leader. Harold was suffering from a lack of self-awareness.
And the costs of that deficit bankrupted his leadership.
Jim closed the door to his office, just as he did every day, but
not so he could concentrate, or study, or pray. He closed the door
so he could sleep. He slept for hours every day, but he never felt
rested. Eventually, Jim recognized that he was depressed. He contacted
his internist for a physical, then for a referral to a counselor.
He also engaged a spiritual director. After a few weeks, Jim
made the courageous decision to secure a sabbatical from his
elders so he could concentrate his energies on exploring some
personal demons that were threatening to destroy him, his family,
and his ministry. Jim took a very intentional journey of self-discovery.
Some months later, Jim returned to his leadership responsibilities
armed with new insights into himself. He established new
accountabilities and boundaries for his life that were designed to
protect him from a relapse of his emotional exhaustion. He implemented
a new team structure, demonstrating his decision to trust
other people with the church's ministry. His leadership, now
vastly improved, guided the church into renewal. Jim went from
being a leader on the way down to a leader determined to be
great. His increased self-awareness set the stage for this transition.
The single most important piece of information a leader possesses is
self-awareness. The dictionary uses a variety of words to portray the
meaning of awareness: knowledge, mindful, vigilance, conscious, alert,
to note a few. When you add the word self to these, you get a good
idea of what self-awareness includes: self-knowledge (knowing who
you are), self-mindfulness (understanding your motives for doing
what you do), self-vigilance (knowing what makes you tick and what
ticks you off!), self-consciousness (knowing how you come across to
others), and self-alertness (maintaining your emotional, physical,
and spiritual condition). The discipline of self-awareness, then, is
the leader's intentional quest for self-understanding.
The hazards for leaders of not being self-aware are serious and
can even be deadly. Without this insight into themselves and their
behavior and motivations, leaders become subject to unknown or
underappreciated forces that influence their actions and that can
sabotage their work. Without appropriate self-awareness, hidden
addictions or compulsions may guide leaders to behaviors that create
huge problems and may dismay, exasperate, and bewilder those
they lead. Leaders who operate without self-awareness run the risk
of being blindsided by destructive impulses and confused by emotions
that threaten to derail their agenda and leadership effectiveness.
They may overestimate or underestimate their abilities and
respond unpredictably. For followers, credibility rides or falls on
consistency-something leaders short on self-awareness usually do
not have. In short, leaders lacking self-awareness are besieged from
within. They often are their own worst enemy. And they don't even
On the other hand, leaders who know themselves have gained
their best ally-themselves! Self-awareness gifts them with significant
insight. They know why they are on the planet and what contribution
they intend to make-and they are in hot pursuit of
making it. They know the behaviors and values that support their
mission. They know how to measure their success. They know what
they bring to the table in terms of talent and abilities. They know
what they don't know, so they are constantly pushing their learning
in strategic areas that support their personal growth and missional
Self-awareness touches all the other disciplines because it is
foundational to every other element of greatness. Interestingly, it
is also the capstone of the leader's journey. At the end of the road,
great leaders are intimately acquainted with themselves. What's
more, they are at home with themselves. This stands in sharp contrast
to the legion of leaders who are attempting their assignment
with nobody home.
The Self-Awareness of Biblical Leaders
Leaders in the Bible frequently reflect a high degree of self-understanding.
David demonstrates the power of self-awareness in establishing and
protecting a personal sense of identity. He calls himself "the Lord's
anointed." This phrase obviously called to mind the mysterious
episode in David's childhood when Samuel, the prophet, showed up
at his home and anointed him as the future king of Israel.
This phrase-the Lord's anointed-both captured and reflected
a core understanding that David had of himself: he was the Lord's
anointed, not just Samuel's. This meant he had a special relationship
with God. One cannot read David's psalms without encountering
this conviction. Psalm 23 details the care of the Shepherd-God
for the shepherd-king. Psalm 139 rehearses the extraordinary
connections between David and God, beginning in the womb and
throughout his life (his thoughts, his words, his physical location-even
his sleep!). The confessions of Psalm 51 reflect that David
considered his relationship to God to be more important than his
pride. It frightened him that his sin might rupture this special
connection, so he pleaded for God's continued presence and
Paul's autobiographical statements in Philippians 3 reveal how
self-awareness can integrate key components of a leader's life. The apostle's
sense of self was composed of his Jewish roots, his early training
as a Pharisee, his passionate nature, and his hunger for significance.
He admitted to the impact of his family of origin ("of the tribe of
Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews," v. 5). He acknowledged his early
blindness to Christ ("in regard to the law, a Pharisee," v. 5). The
apostle did this without disparaging the underlying heart hunger
that drove him to devour the law. That unsatisfied appetite was
finally satisfied in his relationship with Jesus.
Paul knew what he was after in life ("the prize for which God
has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus," v. 14). He had obviously
nurtured a personal vision of what Jesus had foreseen that he could
be when the Lord captured him on the road to Damascus. Paul's
sense of self was radically and forever altered in the dust, darkness,
and light of that experience.
The persecutor-turned-missionary stamped the entire Christian
movement with a missionary fervor. This zeal flowed directly
out of Paul's understanding of God's merciful and relentless heart
for him, even when he was God's enemy. We know a God of grace
partly because Paul knew a gracious God. The converted Pharisee
was willing to rethink his monocultural worldview. This dynamic
enabled the movement to spread cross-culturally under Paul's
Even Jesus had to grow in self-awareness. He evidenced an emerging
self-understanding in his Temple visit at age twelve. He seemed
to be coming to grips with his unique relationship with his Father.
We can only imagine what triggered Jesus' realization that he was
profoundly different from all the other boys and girls. Surely, his
parents' recitation of the events surrounding his birth contributed
to his understanding. However, Jesus had to explore these insights
for himself, as would any human child.
Perhaps his cousin John's outburst at his public baptism ("look,
the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world," John 1:26,
NIV), coupled with the voice from heaven, were the moments
when Jesus crystallized his ideas about who he was and the nature
of his mission. In the wilderness temptations that immediately followed
Jesus' baptism, Satan challenged key aspects of Jesus' personhood.
He attacked Jesus' trust and dependence on his Father (by
asking him to turn stones to bread), urged him to gain notoriety
without service (by inviting him to leap from the Temple), and
offered him power and glory that avoided suffering and sacrifice (if
he would acknowledge Satan as earth's ruler). Each of these temptations
targeted a critical aspect of Jesus' realization of the nature
and cost of his messianic identity and mission.
Jesus' public ministry and passion provide many instances of his
self-awareness. Two examples, one from his early ministry and one
from the last days, reflect Jesus' profound self-understanding. Early
on, Jesus quizzed his disciples about what people were saying about
him. Then he quizzed them to see if they could get it right.
"Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Christ, the son of the living
God.' Jesus replied, 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this
was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven'"
(Matthew 16:16-17, NIV). At the end, Jesus' prayer in the Garden
of Gethsemane reflected a full sense of who he was ("Glorify
your Son that your Son may glorify you" [John 17:1]), where he
had come from, and where he was going ("And now, Father, glorify
me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the
world began" [John 17:5, NIV]).
Any less self-knowledge would have made it impossible for Jesus to
endure the spiritual and physical agony of the cross.
These three leaders-David, Paul, and Jesus-certainly qualify
for inclusion on anyone's list of great leaders. The foundation for
their life achievements was dug and poured in their self-awareness.
That is still today how great leaders secure their leadership.
But how do leaders go about improving their self-awareness?
They do some serious investigating.
Digging into Who You Are
None of us can cultivate self-awareness without understanding how
we've become who we are. Gaining insight into who we are and
how we became ourselves requires some serious digging and inspection,
much the way an archaeologist unearths the origins and artifacts
of ancient civilization by excavating long-buried ruins. Leaders
who want to foster greater self-awareness likewise need to reveal
and understand the sources of their own identities, particularly their
family of origin and its legacy and the significant personal experiences
that have marked and shaped them.
Your Family of Origin
We learn our first life lessons in our family of origin, then we spend
the rest of our lives either building on these lessons or trying to overcome
them. We learn whether we are blessed or not well before we
can speak. We learn whether we are safe or violated well before
we can express the ideas of security and boundaries. These lessons,
attitudes, and behaviors are so deeply imprinted on our psyches that
it often takes years for us even to know they are there and what their
content is; they just feel normal, whatever they are. They are the
warp and woof of who we are.
For most people, the most intense years of exploring family-of-origin
issues tend to be in the twenties and thirties, sometimes all
the way through the mid-forties. During this period, leaders have to
achieve enough independence and separation from their family of
origin to gain perspective on where their journeys have taken them.
Still, a learning leader never stops gaining and integrating insights
from the past throughout life. It's never too late to begin this journey
for personal development and growth. The problem is that
some spiritual leaders never book this trip.
Great leaders distinguish themselves by hitting the trail of self-exploration
early and being unrelenting in searching for clues to
their own formation. They are not afraid to push into uncharted
territory, even when the road seems fraught with danger. They are
determined not to let their past govern their present. Intriguingly,
the only way they can free themselves from the past is to explore it
fully. Otherwise, leaders are dragging stuff around in their suitcases
that they didn't pack and may not even know is there.
Leaders who do not excavate the family-of-origin site may miss
some key personal insights that carry huge implications for their
relationship skills. Communication patterns, capacity for intimacy,
conflict-resolution skills, view of authority-all enormously important
behaviors and attitudes in determining how we relate and
respond to others-are initially formed and informed in our earliest
years. Since leadership is mostly about managing relationships, this
self-understanding proves crucial to leaders' effectiveness. Without
this understanding, leaders might not know what is pushing their hot
buttons or jerking their chain, so they condemn themselves to react
to unidentified forces rather than to be in control of themselves.
Billy frequently lashed out in anger when anyone criticized him.
As a result he created lots of problems for himself in terms of broken
relationships. Even people who were Billy's friends found it
difficult to make suggestions, lest they be dropped from the list of
people he could "trust." Consequently, the leadership culture
around Billy could best be characterized as a revolving door,
where people cycled in and out. The problem was, they left
bleeding. Only in marital counseling did Billy come to understand
why he experienced such anger when challenged or confronted.
He learned that his anger was a secondary emotional
response to the primal emotion of fear.
The therapist helped Billy unearth the hidden secret to his
flash-hot responses. As a kid Billy's mistakes or shortcomings
were ridiculed and punished, often including physical whippings.
He had learned to be afraid when he failed. Now years removed
from that setting, the slightest hint of failure triggered his fear.
Since Billy felt threatened, he fought back with his anger. Billy's
"dig" into his family of origin armed him with a new awareness
that allowed him to choose his responses rather than let his reactions
be triggered by forces he did not comprehend.