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6 Reasons Leaders Grow Cynical (And How to Fight the Trend)

Find yourself becoming a little more cynical every year as a leader?

Few of us decide we’re going to be cynical…we just kind of end up there.

How does that happen?

How does a heart grow hard? How do you end up trusting no one? How does hope die?

Cynicism grows in the hearts of far too many leaders. Not only does it impact how you lead at work or in ministry, eventually your growing cynicism will tear at the fabric of your marriage and even at your relationship with your kids. Nobody likes a cynic.

If you find yourself gradually growing more cynical, you’re not alone.

I think leadership breeds cynicism for several reasons. The good news is you can beat it if you understand how it forms.

cynicism

6 Reasons Leaders Grow Cynical

So why do leaders grow cynical? Here are 6 reasons I’ve seen in myself and in others:

1. You know too much

The more you lead, the more you know. And the more you know, the easier it is to grow cynical.

This shouldn’t surprise us at all. Solomon said it 3000 years ago. The wisest man in his day had to battle cynicism at a very deep level (ever read Ecclesiastes?). In Ecclesiastes 1:18 Solomon make the link between knowledge and sorrow crystal clear:

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

Boom. There it is.

Think of all you’ve seen as a leader. The heartbreak, the betrayals, the politics, the people you believed in who kept letting you down.

You know too much. You’ve seen too much.

And not knowing how to handle what you’ve seen and what you know creates an incubator for cynicism.

2. You haven’t grieved your losses

Leadership is a series of wins and losses. If you’re like me, you hardly notice the wins, but you feel every loss.

Years ago, a mentor pointed out to me that most pastors never grieve their losses. Every time someone leaves your church, it’s a loss. Every time you do a funeral, it’s a loss. Every time you can’t do what you hoped you could do as a leader, it’s a loss.

Most of us just stuff the losses; pretending they don’t matter.

When I first realized I’d stuffed a lot of losses over my life, I cried. A lot. I mean like almost for a month kind of crying. That seemed to clear the backlog.

Now, when I sense there’s a loss (even a small one), I grieve it before God.

There’s a reason people in Biblical times would declare 40 days of mourning. I used to read those passages and think “What’s wrong with those people? Why can’t they just go back to work?”

Actually, there’s something healthy about grieving your losses.

What do you need to grieve that you haven’t grieved?

3. You haven’t dealt with your issues

In addition to the losses you experience in life and leadership, we all bring baggage with us from the past.

I ran from dealing with my ‘stuff’ for years. After all, I was a good leader. I didn’t have any baggage. I sent people to counselling. I didn’t go to counselling.

How wrong that attitude was. Apparently, I did have baggage. And it was impacting not only my leadership, but my marriage and parenting. I’m so thankful I found some trained Christian counsellors to help me work through my issues.

If any of this is resonating with you, I want to encourage you to jump over to listen to Perry Noble and I tell our stories of burnout and depression in this post (and interview).

4. You’ve projected past failures onto new situations

When you don’t deal with your issues or grieve your losses, you end up projecting past failures onto new situations.

Here’s how cynicism operates.

Cynicism looks at a new team member and says “I’ll bet it’s just a matter of time until he screws up”.

Cynicism looks at a new class of 9th graders and says “They’re just like the kids who drove me nuts last year.”

Cynicism sees the newlyweds and says “I wonder how long until they hit the rocks?”

Cynicism sees the new church and decides “It will only be a matter of time until they implode too.”

If you want to fight cynicism, stop projecting past failures onto new situations.

5. You’ve decided to stop trusting

As soon as cynicism gets a toehold in your life, you stop trusting.

Because the next person is just like the last person, you decide those kind of people can’t be trusted. Or worse, people can’t be trusted.

Really?

Is that how you want to live? What kind of leader does that make you? What kind of person does that make you?

Or, without inducing a guilt trip, what kind of Christ-follower does that make you (isn’t the heart of our faith forgiveness and hope)?

If you want to kick cynicism in the teeth, trust again. Believe again. Hope again.

6. You’ve lost your curiosity

I think an incredibly effective long term antidote to cynicism is curiosity.

The curious are never cynical.

The curious are always interested, always open to new possibilities, always thinking, always hopeful. I wrote a post about the link between cynicism and how to become more curious here.

Because cynicism tends to creep up with age, you’ll notice there are (sadly) a lot of cynical old people. My favourite elderly people are never the cynical, but the curious. The ones who at 80 are still learning, still open, still hopeful, still passionate about the next generation, still optimistic.

When was the last time you were honestly curious about something? Pursue curiosity, and cynicism will die of a thousand pinpricks.

What Kills Cynicism in You?

If you’ve felt cynicism growing inside you, what’s making it grow? What’s helping you beat it?

I’d love to hear from you. Scroll down and add to the conversation by leaving a comment!

21 Comments

  1. Sam Turbeville on June 19, 2017 at 3:45 pm

    Thank you for this Carey. It was spot on! There is a Ravi Zachariah quote I love that goes along with the point on curiosity: “The older you get the more it takes to fill your heart with wonder.”

  2. […] Oh, cynicism. It’s hard not to become cynical as you age (here’s why). […]

  3. Luis Hiciano on May 30, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Amazing just some of the things I’m dealing with because I’ve help people who betrayed me over and over But I’m still in the learning process. Blessings

  4. […] Oh, cynicism. It’s hard not to become cynical as you age (here’s why). […]

  5. April Banks on August 16, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    What about it the bad keeps coming and the devil keeps attacking and you never seem to see the other side even when you’ve fasted and prayed and sought God and obeyed when it was hard??? Don’t you need to see the light sometimes to escape cynicism?

    • Luis Hiciano on May 30, 2017 at 12:22 pm

      Hey Blessings sister go back a reflect over those situation maybe the Lord wants something from you for that reason it keeps coming back at you with all do respect. There’s a lesson look it up.

  6. Quinton on August 14, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Thank you for this Carey! I find that God is being proactive as I am aware of tough times soon to be creeping up in my ministry! I will definitely keep these points in the forefront of my mind to avoid cynicism!
    That being said – point 2 – with not grieving our losses, I find more often then not in the younger generation, people are more open to grieving but often do not know how to properly grieve. Yet the Psalms are such a wonderful tool that teach us the pattern of grief aka lament! If we can teach people to properly lament I think that can decrease a whole lot of cynicism that people feel. Lamenting properly has helped me face cynicism, anxiety, regrets, and disappointments as a whole. I think lamenting is so powerful because a well rounded laments airs the grief but also submits the situation into God’s control.

    • Quinton on August 14, 2016 at 6:37 pm

      That being said, I thought of one question. In regards to not bring the past into new situations. One of the situations I most come into contact with is the cynicism within leaders and congregation alike in (dutch) reformed circles and it is this: dutch people don’t change.
      Aside from strong vision casting, what advise would you give to help combat this specific niche of cynicism

  7. justcallmebradley on April 10, 2015 at 5:23 am

    Holy smokes! Great article. Thanks for helping us along who find ourselves in the healing process.

  8. Chris Shumate on April 8, 2015 at 7:00 am

    To point number 2, the problem is with society and our need to fit in with what society says. From secular business to the most conservative Christian circles people tell us to move on, let go of the past because there’s nothing that can be done about it. “Jesus has forgiven you and remembers it no more, shouldn’t you do the same?” is something I see and hear often.

    The prosperity gospel of says that God wants you to be happy, if you’re not happy then get over it. Essentially, I think the problem is society and even our Western church culture.

    The notion that real men don’t cry is still alive today, which adds to it even more. It will take a concerted effort on our behalf to change ourselves, move away from the culture of cynicism, and change it from our side before the trend will change at a macro-level.

    Point number 4 makes me think you’ve installed a bug in my house and office at work! I project past failure on too many things, especially at my workplace. We’re going through more changes than the weather pattern in East Tennessee.

  9. Jamie Simmons on April 7, 2015 at 11:52 am

    This is so true. I have been working full time with a volunteer organization for the last 7 years now. I have filled several leadership positions and found that it is so easy to slip into cynicism. I found it in me almost two years after I had started. Although I did not have a name for it. It seriously affected my ministry and my heart to serve God. I had to turn to my leaders to find a way to change my heart attitude. Now I find when I am slipping into my old cynicism. I will stop and pray for awhile, pray for the ministry, the new people, the older ones, I pray that God will give me a new heart for the ministry. He answers me every time.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 7, 2015 at 11:54 am

      Jamie…stay encouraged and keep seeking God. I’m so glad you haven’t given up. 🙂

  10. jonperrin on April 4, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    Great article, Carey! It is true that the longer we serve in ministry, the more cynical we become. We end up looking for other peoples’ ulterior motives. And it seems when we “find” their hidden motives, they look a lot like the stuff we’ve got hidden in our own closets. God help us be hope-bearers, not dream-killers!

  11. Antone on April 4, 2015 at 8:58 am

    Good morning Cary. I have a separate email just for blogs that I subscribe to. I have subscribed to your blog using amgsubscriber@gmail.com. The problem is I am not getting your posts and they are not going to my junk file. Is there a way to check to make sure my email is not being treated as spam on your end? I apologize for the stray reply on this post but like your stuff and just want to get it to my inbox. Thanks for your good work, Cary. Appreciated.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 5, 2015 at 5:34 am

      Hey Antone…sent you an email. Hope it resolves the issue. Thanks for subscribing.

  12. Leadership Roundup | Worship Links on April 2, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    […] Carey Nieuwhof explains why so many leaders get cynical and how to avoid it: […]

  13. Andy Scott on April 2, 2015 at 8:11 am

    I find that getting away for a guided weekend of solitude and silence helps. I have found a Christian counselor in my area who also understands the struggles of being a Church leader. He helps me to refocus and figure out why I am becoming cynical. This has been my greatest help in this area. GREAT POST!!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 2, 2015 at 12:22 pm

      Great practices and points. Thanks so much Andy!

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