Anyone who has ever led anything knows that influence can be a precarious thing.
What can take years to build can be lost or squandered almost overnight. It happens every day to leaders, and often they’re the last to see it.
So how do you end up losing influence as a leader, without even trying?
Well first some clarity around how influence and leadership work.
I believe John Maxwell is right, leadership is influence. If you want to know whether you’re a leader, look over your shoulder to see if anyone’s following. If they are, you’re a leader, regardless of your title. If not, you probably aren’t, regardless of your title. Your leadership rises and falls with your influence. Period.
Second, I also think Andy Stanley is completely accurate when he says that leadership is always a stewardship; it’s temporary, and we’re accountable. (Jared Dunn has a summary of Andy’s thinking here.)
Did you catch that?
Our influence is temporary
It was given to us by God for a purpose
It can be taken away
One day we will give an account for how we used it
Leaders who take that seriously, I think, become the leaders most worth following.
And the most effective leaders also realize you can squander your influence quickly, without trying.
Here’s are 5 ways to squander your influence as a leader without trying:
1. Make ‘likability’ a goal. Being likeable is a by-product of leadership; it is not the goal of leadership. In fact, some of the most effective leaders are not liked. And it’s not just because of a ‘personality defect’. Moses, Jesus, Paul and most of the prophets were, in many seasons, hated by the people they led. That kind of affection would crush many of the ‘leaders’ I know in the church today.
This is no excuse to be an arrogant, brash or uncaring leader. Bully pulpits and platforms are not the goal either. But sometimes even when you lead with both humility and conviction, you will still not be liked. That’s okay. If you try to be liked by everyone, you will ultimately stand for nothing and lead no one anywhere significant.
2. Compromise morally, in big or small ways. There are obvious categories of moral failure that will evaporate your influence instantly; have an affair, steal or commit a crime and you’ll lose influence instantly. You don’t even have to be a Christian leader to fall this way. The headlines are littered with athletes, politicians and public figures who have cheated, lied and broken trust.
But aside from ‘major failings’, small compromises will sap your influence over time as well. Shade the truth. Exaggerate. Do things you wouldn’t want anyone to find out about, even though they’re not illegal. This catches up with you. The people who see you every day often get a sense of where your moral compass really points. And even if they don’t, God does. People want to follow someone with an authentic moral compass. And God wants leaders who really seek him. The more your compass is off, even a little, the more you squander influence.
3. Don’t do what you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do it. Most of us leaders are eager to please. And that can lead to over-promising in the name of not wanting to let anyone down. But over time, even in the small things, when you fail to do what you said you were going to do when you were going to do it, you damage your influence.
Trust is confidence. And when you break even well-intentioned promises, you erode trust.
4. Only talk about your strengths and awesomeness. Leaders who only talk about their victories may be influential, but I believe they could be even more influential if they honestly talked about their struggles. Leaders who just talk about their strengths make others feel inadequate, but they also lose credibility with outsiders and younger adults. The next generation knows you don’t have it all together. So tell them (appropriately).
One of the all time most-talked-about messages at our church was one my wife Toni and I gave on our marriage. We talked about our darkest days, and how there were seasons we didn’t think we were going to make it. You can watch it here (the message is called “Command Performance”). It resonated not just because it was the truth about us, but because it described the tension so many other people face.
5. Let Your Relationship With Christ Get Stale. Listen, keeping a strong spiritual life as a leader is hard. I know. But when I started ministry I told our elders at the time to fire me if they ever sensed my walk with Christ had dried up. Give me a couple of months to get it right, but if I don’t, send me packing. You can’t lead people to a place where you have never been. And when try to do the authentic work of God without an authentic relationship with God it eventually kills your church.
You don’t have to try to drift away from God. It just happens. So engage. Stay fresh. Love the one who loves you.
Those are five ways I see leaders squander their influence without trying.
What do you see? Please add to this list in the comments below.
And don’t miss the follow up post to this: Five (More) Ways to Squander Your Influence Without Trying