The Self-Aware Leader, Terry Linhart. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press (Praxis), 2017.
Summary: Explores the blind spots of one’s leadership and helps us become aware of the unseen influences that shape and hinder us, so that brought into the open, they can be recognized, addressed, and redeemed.
It hardly seems that a month goes by where we don’t hear the sad tale of some prominent Christian leader who must step down from leadership because of some personal failing. You probably can multiply these publicized stories a hundred times over with the unpublicized but painful stories of lesser-known leaders, and often, those they have led. We’ve instituted accountability groups, training, oversight–and yet the frequency seems as great as ever.
Terry Linhart would argue that part of the reason is a failure to address our blind spots in leadership:
“The phrase blind spots is regularly used in leadership circles to describe problems or patterns that lurk unseen and pose potential danger. For the last two decades I have been developing and equipping young adults to serve as ministry leaders, pastors, youth workers, missionaries, and managers. That process includes helping them reflect on what they may not notice—the areas of their life too personal or hidden to see easily—that may pose potential problems. The truth is that we all have such areas, even if we’re not that young” (p. 10).
Drivers learn where their blind spots are, and “clear” them when changing lanes or maneuvering. Linhart would contend that we need to develop similar practices of self-awareness for the blind spots in our lives. He uses an example of a cross country coach who called him out to run a better race than he thought he had in him, and in this book acts as a coach, helping us become aware of those blind spots that thwart running our best race as leaders for God’s “well done.” He explores seven area:
- Self. At best, leading out of the unique personality and gifts of who we are rather than competing or wishing we were like someone else. He invites us to take “selfies” of our reactions and reflect upon them.
- Past. All of us have developed “scripts” from past experience, sometimes deeply painful experiences, that unconsciously shape our behavior patterns. Often, others can help us recognize these and experience healing as we understand where they come from, and how grace brings healing to them.
- Temptations. He addresses the “big five” of seeking prominence, control, materialism (“shiny stuff”), inappropriate intimacy, and resentment.
- Emotions. He challenges us to emotional maturity through learning to “keep a sentry,” label our feelings, be aware of other emotions, recognize the intensity of emotions, particularly unusual reactions, manage emotions, learn from them, and submit them to Jesus.
- Pressures. Leadership is living with pressure. Understanding internal and external pressures and developing systems to address pressure is vital.
- Conflicts. Conflict, like pressure is a reality of leadership. It can be handled badly or well. He offers ten pointers to healthy conflict resolution and concludes with some vital insights on passive-aggressiveness.
- Margins. Leaders often lack margins in their days, weeks, months, and yearly patterns to listen to God, to grow and renew mentally, and to recover from intense periods of work. He describes the idea of “sprint-drift” that I’ve found so describes the life of ministry. The danger is we try to sprint all the time!
Each chapter includes “self checks” to apply concepts and concludes with questions “for greater awareness.”
This is one of those books I wish I had forty years ago! I think I’ve learned most of the lessons in here, mostly by making a ton of mistakes, and sometimes through the gift of insightful people who observed my blind spots and helped me become aware of them. And that brings me to a paradox in this book. We don’t become self-aware by ourselves. We may take initiatives to ask others how they see us, but the truth is that there are some blind spots we will only see through the help of another–a spouse, a supervisor, a coach, or those we lead.
Linhart is a good coach. He shares his own journey toward self-awareness, his own failings and then, sometimes gently, and sometimes more annoyingly, presses us toward our best self in Christ. I once heard a prominent leader observe that people love to be led well and that aspiring to lead is a noble thing. Sadly, this leader has experienced his own failure in leadership that may reflect a certain lack of self-awareness. But the observation stands. What Linhart helps us to see is that those who lead without ending badly are those who continue to search out the blind spots that may thwart or disqualify them. Perhaps the greatest danger to the leader is the vulnerability one thinks one doesn’t have or doesn’t know about. Linhart names them without shaming us and offers guidance without guilt. Like that cross country coach, he gives us hope that we might be capable of more than we think possible even as we become more aware of who we are.