Leadership, Self-doubt and Healthy Fear

December 16, 2009 — 2 Comments

I was reading in David McCullough’s fantastic biography of John Adams recently, and I ran across a section that I thought had relevance to all leaders. McCullough wrote:

At the start of every new venture of importance in his life, John Adams was invariably assailed by great doubts. It was a life pattern as distinct as any. The boy of fifteen, riding away from home to be examined for admission to Harvard, suffered a foreboding as bleak as the rain clouds overhead. The delegate to the first Continental Congress, preparing to depart for Philadelphia, felt “unalterable anxiety”; the envoy sailing for France wrote of “great diffidence in myself.” That he always succeeded in conquering these doubts did not seem to matter. In advance of each large, new challenge, the painful waves rolled in upon him once again.

Part of this was stage fright, part the consequence of an honest reckoning of his own inadequacies. Mainly it was the burden of an inordinate ability to perceive things as they were: he was apprehensive because he saw clearly how much there was to be apprehensive about.

Three Kinds of Fear that Leaders Face

McCullough mentions three fears with which Adams wrestled: (1) stage fright, (2) personal inadequacy, and (3) realistic assessment of his current leadership situation. All leaders face these same fears. While all three are present in our leadership worlds, each fear requires a different response. The first two, we need to discard; the third is something we carry with us.

Fear 1 – Stage Fright

When McCullough speaks of stage fright, he’s not talking about being “on stage.” He means the fear of the leadership mantle that must be worn as a leader in any setting. This fear comes from knowing that your leadership mettle is about to be put to the test by a new challenge, likely one which you have never faced before.

You see plenty of examples of stage fright in the Bible. I liken this fear to that of Moses. He first responded to God’s call by saying, “Who am I that I should go that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” He clearly preferred hiding out in the comfort (wink wink) of being a shepherd to taking the stage of leadership. He was determined to dodge the frontman role.

God’s response to Moses was more or less, “Get over it.” God was gracious to him and sent Aaron to help, but which of the two had a lead role played by Charleton Heston in the movie “The Ten Commandments”? Moses. God didn’t allow Moses to skip out just because of his stage fright.

When we experience this fear, we need the same advice: get over it. God almost always gives us someone to help shoulder the weight, but a leader must repeatedly let go of fear, and move in the direction God has called him or her to go.

Fear 2 – Personal Inadequacy

The second kind of fear has more to do with “an honest reckoning of [our] own inadequacies.” Many of us are performance-based people who feel a need to succeed. We struggle against our weaknesses all the time, so we are very aware of what they are. Knowing we don’t have it all together, we spook easily.

In Jeremiah 1, we read of God’s call of the prophet Jeremiah. God makes it clear that He planned to make Jeremiah a prophet before his daddy’s sperm had a first date with mommy’s egg. Since God decided this before his DNA was set, one would think Jeremiah could be confident that God knew what He was doing. Instead, Jeremiah says, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” Do you see the list of personal inadequacies he just pulled out? I can’t speak. I’m too young. God replies something along these lines, “Shut up, but speak clearly when I tell you to speak.”

This fear must be faced head on and discarded as an enemy. I know this fear well. When I battle feelings of inadequacy, I have developed the spiritual discipline of praying through Jeremiah 1 as a reminder that success is determined by a lot more than my performance. God calls us, and He will use us as he chooses.

Sometimes, this argument for God’s sovereign will is used as an excuse for laziness or cowardice. This may happen if a person is placed into a leadership role but lacks the gift or the heart of a leader. If that’s the case, then there are other issues that must be dealt with. Most of the time, however, this isn’t the case. I find that most natural leaders tend to strive for excellence, usually placing too much of their significance in their success. For these leaders, casting off the fear of personal inadequacy is a call to abandon self-importance and depend on God.

Fear 3 – Leadership Situations

The third fear that every leader faces is a different kind of fear. McCullough describes this as “the burden of an inordinate ability to perceive things as they [are].” Every good leader is able to look out into the days ahead and know what’s coming. He may not see everything perfectly, but he has a sense of what is coming down the road. John Adams “was apprehensive because he saw clearly how much there was to be apprehensive about.”

Seasoned leaders are not afraid because they are uncertain of the future; they are afraid because they know what will happen in the days ahead. They know how the trials will beat them up. They know the battles that must be won. They know the pain it will cause people they care about. These are not matters to dismiss. These are realistic concerns that must be dealt with honestly and diligently and prayerfully.

We should not be shocked by difficulty, since we are instructed, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial that comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). A primary task of a leader is to make an accurate appraisal of the challenges ahead. Jesus himself tells us that we should count the cost before we enter the work God has called us to:

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

You might quibble over my use of the word fear here, but the point remains: we are called to take a realistic look at the leadership situations we are entering. These may deal with an inwardly-focused church, a division in a church family, a financial crisis, a spiritual stronghold of the enemy, group injustice such as racism, callousness to sin, pride in religious service, or some other struggle. It is healthy to have a reasonable level of fear based on the challenges ahead. These “healthy” fears can drive us to seek God in our work as nothing else can.

When these fears show up, our response should be three-fold:

  1. Make a realistic assessment of the situation, and make your assessment known to your leadership team. You should not oversell the danger, but neither should you undercut the real challenges you will face. Seek input from key leaders, and adjust your conclusions as you learn new things.
  2. Do the difficult work of knowing the issues inside and out. Where I’ve made mistakes in the past, they have typically involved my emotional withdrawal from a difficult task which led to inadequate preparation—basically, I got tired, and I didn’t complete my homework.
  3. Pray. A lot. “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you (Psalm 55:22).” God may not quickly remove the situation, but He will help us to bear the weight of it. He will also guide us as we navigate the road we are travelling: If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).

– jdl

2 responses to Leadership, Self-doubt and Healthy Fear

  1. 

    Thanks, Greg. Appreciate it. We are doing well. Expecting our babygirl to make her appearance any day now. Hope life is good for you.

  2. 

    Jeff–good stuff, and good recommendations for how to deal with that last and most important thing. Hope you and yours are well–Greg

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