By Doug Talley
I enjoy reading because I love to learn. At the end of 2020 I read The Resilient Leader by my good friend Al Ells. What a helpful book, especially for pastors. This past weekend I finished Reality-Based Leadership by Cy Wakeman. As I write this article for the Indiana E-News, these two books are colliding in my head.
Reality-Based Leadership begins by saying, “We are living in dramatic and demanding times.” Though it was written in 2010, those words are incredibly relevant today. Pandemic. Political and relational polarization. Fake news. Social and racial unrest. Vaccine anxiety. Economic stress and collapse. This is the world we live in today…2021. This reality creates a LOT of drama and craziness. How do we make it through today, much less lead in times like these?
Cy Wakeman makes a bold statement that I believe is accurate: “Most of the drama in our lives is self-created.” She says that our mindsets cause more of the stress and anxiety that we feel than do actual circumstances. At first, I wanted to argue, because – after all – these are unprecedented times (that word may get banned from dictionaries after this year, so use it while you can). And unprecedented times create stress and anxiety, right?
We blame our mindset on circumstances. But do circumstances really create stress and anxiety? Or do circumstances create a story (a false reality) that hijacks our thinking, then our minds embrace the story as if it is accurate and true, and then stress and anxiety are generated?
That last paragraph bothers me because I really think it is often true. The story we create in response to circumstances hijacks our minds and generates stress and anxiety, whether that story is true or not.
To effectively lead today we must “quickly recognize and radically accept the reality of” our situations. The challenge is that our minds are cluttered with thoughts, judgments, beliefs, conclusions, and assumptions that are all based on the story we tell ourselves rather than reality. In other words, we interpret what is happening by telling ourselves a story, and then each of us thinks that “my story” is 100% based on reality. But let’s be honest, “my story” is often flawed.
Social media has made conspiracy stories pretty common place. Before PC (Personal Computers), people who advocated conspiracy theories used to communicate with each other with spoken words, books or articles, and snail mail – if at all. But social media has given anyone with a conspiracy idea a platform that theoretically can reach the whole world in an instant. Conspiracy theorists interpret events, ideas, conversations, speeches, and news by telling themselves (and us) a story. They conclude their story is reality. Then they act accordingly.
This article isn’t actually about conspiracy theorists. I’m using them as an illustration of how the story we tell ourselves can develop a life of its own and, thereby, hijack our emotions, obsess our thoughts, and commandeer our actions. We all tend to do this to a degree, whether we cross the line into conspiracy thinking or not.
One of my daily prayers since the pandemic hit has been, “God, how do I lead well today?” COVID messed up many of the plans I had for 2020, both personal and for Indiana Ministries. So instead of planning ahead, I began to value the wisdom of “one day at a time” (think the 1970s song co-written and sung by Kris Kristofferson, not the 70s/80sTV show staring Valerie Bertinelli that was supposedly set in Indianapolis.)
How I lead today is at least partially based on the story I tell myself on any given day. Let me explain what I mean.
Each time something happens, each time I read or hear news, each time I have a conversation, each time I am involved in a situation, each time I have a meeting or a conflict, I tell myself a story (as do you.) I do this in an attempt to make sense of what I’ve seen, heard, or experienced. The story I tell myself becomes reality in my mind. My emotions react to this story. Different parts of my brain are triggered by this story. What I do and don’t do grows out of this story. If I become stressed and anxious, it is because of the story.
As pastors, we lead based on the stories we tell ourselves. Our stories sound so logical, rational, and feel so true that we embrace them as reality and then respond accordingly. As we do, our self-leadership and our ability to lead today are compromised. These stories trick us into blaming other people or circumstances and then reacting instead of taking responsibility for our unhealthy thinking and choosing to lead well.
The foundation of great leadership is self-leadership. If a leader is unable to lead him or herself, how can that leader lead others well? The organization, ministry, or church that a leader leads can only face reality as the leader faces reality, can only grow as much as the leader grows. That means how I lead myself and the stories I tell myself make a huge difference in the health and effectiveness of Indiana Ministries. And how you lead yourself and the stories you tell yourself make a huge difference in the health and effectiveness of your congregation or the organization you lead or are part of.
My COVID prayer (“Father, help me lead well today.”) has caused me to spend time with God asking Him to give me a more accurate story. As I’ve asked for wisdom to know how to think, respond and act, God has been gracious in helping me gain clarity in the story I tell myself. As God helps me lead myself better, I have less stress and anxiety and feel like I am better able to lead others.