Leaders: Are You Too Hard on Yourself?

For many leaders, our biggest challenge isn’t giving love and encouragement — it’s receiving them.

For many leaders, our biggest challenge isn’t giving love and encouragement — it’s receiving them.

For many leaders, our biggest challenge isn’t giving love and encouragement — it’s receiving them.

A while back at a leadership conference, I had just finished giving a talk that went far better than I anticipated.  As I was walking to the back of the room, many of my coworkers gave me high fives and encouragements.

“Nice job!  That went great!” they shouted.

“No, I’m not sure about that…” I started.

But one of my friends and mentors interrupted me.  He put his hands on both of my shoulders, shook me back and forth a bit, and looked me right in the eye. 

“Just take it in, Adrian!  Receive it!”

And in that moment, I realized that my reaction to the encouragement wasn’t about pride or humility.  It was about how deeply I could experience the grace that people were extending to me.

For leaders in serving professions, sometimes this is our reality:

  • We feel more comfortable when we’re doing things to help others, than when we’re needing or asking for help ourselves.
  • We feel more comfortable when other people are talking.  We’re more self-conscious about whether or not we’re talking too much.
  • We feel more comfortable being critical of our actions and decisions, and we’re always thinking about how much more we need to improve.

Doesn’t sound too bad, right?  But there is a dark side to all this, that I’ve been noticing in my own leadership.  Yes, I do love seeing where I can improve and work on things.  But when taken to an extreme, I could end up thinking leadership is all about how hard I need to work, as if it’s something I need to earn or prove.  And that’s antithetical to the very idea of grace — upon which so much of my life has been built.

The Global Leadership Summit produces a lot of great resources and videos, and I came across this one from Sheila Heen, co-author of Thanks For the Feedback, which I previously reviewed on this website.  In this short video, she gives this advice for leaders who are too self-critical:

Ask for positive feedback.  Like, “what am I doing well?”

In other words, use feedback not just as a channel for constructive improvement, but for encouragement along the way.

I think a lot of us can benefit from Heen’s advice.  Growth and self-examination are vital for leaders, but for some of us, our shortcoming isn’t that we don’t seek to learn or improve.  Our bigger challenge is taking in enough positive encouragement and grace to keep us fueled, motivated, and in touch with God and people.

The other day, I was reading the story in the Bible where a woman with a negative reputation comes to Jesus, weeps on his feet, and pours perfume as a cultural way to show honor and affection.  While others around Jesus are uncomfortable with this, Jesus doesn’t back away but receives her blessing (Luke 7:36-50).  He was able to take in love from the people around him.

As leaders, we are called to serve, give, and sacrifice… no question about it.  However, we must remember that our source of power and life in ministry doesn’t lie in how much we have to give, but in how much grace we’re able to receive.  The message of Christianity starts with the truth of how much we are loved.

I once heard a friend in leadership say, “I want to serve with everything I have.  I want to reach the end of the day, and be utterly exhausted because I know I did my best and didn’t leave anything on the table!”

At the time, I nodded my head in agreement.  I understood my friend’s heart.  But too often, I wonder if we work with an achieving, performing mindset.  We think that when our lives are over, God will ask us, “Did you really love me?”

When instead, in the words of author Brennan Manning, God will more likely ask us, “Did you believe that I loved you?”

Are you too hard on yourself?  If so, I’m guessing you probably know it.

Try doing a couple of things this month to provide some balance to your healthy desire to learn and grow:

  • Set up some regular meetings or phone calls with people whom you trust, and who are sources of encouragement and life to you.

  • When you’re with these friends, ask for some positive feedback.

Ask your friends, “What are some things you think I do well as a leader?”  You can tell them how hard you tend to be on yourself, and ask them to encourage and pray for you.

It may feel strange to you to do this, but I bet it won’t be strange for your friends.  You may find that there are many people who are ready and eager to encourage and pour love into you. 

The question for us all is: can we receive it?

Adrian Pei
Adrian Pei works as Director of Creative Arts and Resources at Epic Movement, the Asian American ministry of Cru. He earned degrees from Stanford University and Fuller Seminary, and is passionate about writing and developing culturally-aware leadership. You can find him on his blog at www.adrianpei.com, or on Twitter at @adrianpei.