How To Lead When You're In Over Your Head

Here’s a leadership secret.

Almost anyone who has ever led anything significant has felt like they’re in over their head at one point or another.

You might be there right now.

Over my head

One leader who responded to my new blog reader survey put it this way:

I’m basically…new to all of this and feeling completely over my head. Knowing I am called to be here and not knowing how any of this is going to work, [the] leadership issue for me is feeling so very very insecure on so many levels.

I get that. (By the way, you can take the survey anytime to let me know what leadership issues you’re wrestling with.)

I’ve felt like I’ve been in over my head many times:

I was in law before ministry. First year law school was overwhelming for a liberal arts major, but I found a way through.

I really never saw myself as a pastor, and had to figure out how to lead a church in real time when I got called into ministry.

I really had no idea how to write a book. I’ve now been able to publish two and have several more on the way.

So how do you lead when you’re in over your head?

Here are 5 guidelines:

1. Be humble. Humility is a leader’s best friend. It’s one thing to be in over your head but pretend you’ve got it all figured out. People can tell you don’t. The quickest way to alienate the people around you is to pretend you know what you’re doing when you don’t. People lose confidence in you quickly and begin to dismiss you as arrogant.

On the other hand, don’t repeatedly throw yourself under the bus either saying things like “I’m no good at this” or “I have no idea what I’m doing”. That’s not true humility. That’s a lack of confidence.

Instead, just be truthful and express a humble confidence in the long term outcome. Say things like “This is new to me, but I’m sure we can figure this out together.” Or “The learning curve is steep right now, and I’m grateful for a good team around me. We’ll get this done somehow.” Sometimes when you’re really shaky, the confidence you’re expressing is in God, not in yourself. I realize that’s good theology in every season, but sometimes the only confidence you will have is in God. That’s more than okay.

2. Get a great team of people around you who are smarter than you are. You really can’t do this alone. And the more alone you are, the more difficult it will be. Get some mentors to build into you. If no one’s offering (they rarely do), just ask.

Also build a local team around you. Recruit the next and brightest leaders you can find and mobilize them.  Here are 5 tips on how to attract and lead leaders who are better than you.

3. Become an avid student. Get up early. Read everything you can. Take notes from everyone around you. Be in active learning mode. You need a steep growth curve in this stage. Make sure you spend time every day learning and growing. Don’t spend so many hours working in leadership that you can’t work on your leadership.

4. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”. Insecurities run deep in most of us. And often our fear is that when people realize how little we know they will reject us. But when you tell them you don’t know, two things happen. First, they’re relieved you told the truth and didn’t try to bluff your way through it. Second, they probably like you a little bit more because your admission you don’t know makes you more relatable, more human. Don’t rest at “I don’t know.” Tell them you’ll find out and report back. But at least admit it. Don’t bluff.

5. Trust God. Many of us experienced a specific calling into ministry. If so, you need to trust God to get you through it. In the absence of a clear calling (not everyone is clear on what they are supposed to do with their lives, even after praying extensively), if you are serving in the area of your gifting and passion, long term things almost always get better. Sometimes you just need to trust the Giver, not the gifts. Keep working. Be diligent. Don’t give up. Trust that the God who got you into this will get you through it.

Naturally, sometimes we’re in over our heads because we’re doing something we’re not gifted for, called to or equipped to handle. That’s a whole different subject.

But most of the time, we just need to persevere a little longer.

What have you learned about leading when you’re in over your head?

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  • Brent Dumler

    This is a great post, Carey. And in reality you really could have just stopped with #1 and had points 2-5 support the topic of humility. Your last 4 points all require quite a bit of humility. I think simply being humble is the key when we find ourselves in too deep. Humility is the key because most of us naturally default to feeling like we have to rise above the situation and ‘lead’ everyone else. But when we humble ourselves and do the things you listed above, we discover leaders around us who want to lovingly support us.

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Brent..thanks. Humility is everything, isn’t it? Finishing up a series on the subject now. Wish it was 20 weeks long. :)

  • Deo Mpiima Mwanje

    This is so refreshing thanks

  • Kirk Leggott

    Great post.Sometimes it’s difficult to know when to say “Try, try again” and when to say “Time to move on”, but this is, in general, pretty good advice.

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      You’re so right. It’s a fine line but hopefully we’re all open enough to other voices to know when it’s time to go.

  • Julie Pierce

    I’ve been in over my head multiple times – feeling like I’m there again right now! This is a helpful reminder list for me as well as a reference for the leaders I serve. Thanks for another great post, Carey!

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Hey Julie…thanks for the encouragement. Keep leading!

  • johincolorado

    All good advice, Carey! Trusting God is most important but beyond that, getting a team around me has always been the most successful. I have to be intentional and secure about asking those people that are more gifted than I am to join me.
    This is a helpful reminder. Thanks.
    John – in colorado

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Thanks John. Great to hear from you…and yes, that pushes the security button for all of us I think!