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

cynicism

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.

Nobody likes a cynic. Yet far too many leaders end up growing cynical. Why? Click To Tweet

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.

The more you lead, the more you know. The more you know, the more cynical you naturally become. Click To Tweet

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?

If you're like most leaders, you hardly notice the wins in leadership. But you feel every loss. Click To Tweet

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.

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

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.

The curious are never cynical. Pursue curiosity and cynicism will die of a thousand pinpricks. Click To Tweet

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!

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

31 Comments

  1. Scott on July 25, 2021 at 8:34 am

    I can’t agree with you more Carey! I went from a happy go lucky Pastor with unlimited belief to a tired grumpy old man. Interestingly cynicism has a way of compounding. When you look for the worst you get it every time! I’m at the tail end of my Pastoral ministry. I pray for all the young guys starting out today! There’s never been a time that tests optimism more than right now.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 26, 2021 at 11:30 am

      I hear you Scott. I’ve been there too. Combat it with curiosity. Our team is praying for you.

  2. Warren Carswell on July 25, 2021 at 5:25 am

    I’m thinking of the movie Big. Good stuff.

  3. Mark on April 16, 2019 at 8:45 pm

    For a couple decades, I’ve been asking people who are in emergency services how they combat cynicism. This job field is wrought with cynicism. Not one single person even attempted to offer a reply.
    Thank you for the information…and for the encouragement…and for hope.

  4. Patsy Odell on January 31, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    I got out of burnout by totally changing my environment and job. I began to grow plants and animals instead of people. It was so refreshing because these things do not lie or manipulate.

    • Cody on May 15, 2019 at 11:22 am

      Just Remember- Plants and Animals don’t have the ability to change the world- People do.

      I hope you lead people again soon.

    • Doug McColl on February 16, 2021 at 9:26 am

      Working with your hands in the Earth is an important part of healing and recovery. Plants and animals are life, and life is hope. They ask nothing of you, but teach that healthful life requires attention from an outside source. Hmmmm?

  5. Edd Russell on September 2, 2018 at 3:17 am

    A friend sent me a link to this saying he thought my curiosity kept me from being cynical. But I can get cynical sometimes anyways. And I went through the burnout/depression thing a couple of years ago and the counseling was a great help. I’ve been around bitter old people and I vowed when I was younger to not be that way, but now that I’m older, I realize that my choices are more critical, so I appreciate these Ideas.

    One thing that helps me is trying to have a realistic concept of my own estate, and not be too self-important. Have other disappointed me? Yes. But have I disappointed God (or at least give God cause for disappointment if He were human)? Yes. I work with a bunch of flawed people who are in need of grace. And my co-workers do, too, as they work with me. And so when one of the 13-year olds in our church makes an unwise decision, I try to remember the unwise decsions I made when I was 13. Well, no, I really don’t want to remember them. And I pray for God to help me be as patient with others as He is with me.

    When it come to cynicism regarding things other than people, it helps to remember times when I was “wrong”. Like when a co-worker does something using all the “wrong” methodologies, but is quite successful because God is bigger than us and our methodologies. This doesn’t mean to purposely try to do something that hasn’t worked over and over again until the laws of probabilities means I may eventually make something work. But it does mean being open to doing something that I might not otherwise do or try.

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

  7. 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.”

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

    • Crispy on August 12, 2021 at 5:01 pm

      What a brilliant bit of teaching!
      I heard a Christian speaker say that in her family, they all pray every day “Lord, I ask for and receive your grace for today”. If someone in the family got cranky, the others would say “You forgot to pray for grace for today! You go to your room and get God’s grace now!” And it worked. They were all really loving and patient with eachother.
      I’d always wondered what that verse in 2 Corinthians 12:9 meant ( I always thought it had to do with asking God to be gracious toward us. And it’s part of the truth, of course.
      But then I eventually realised, that it is primarily asking God to give us His grace, so that we can be gracious toward those around us, whether we are right in our judgement of the way they are behaving or not. The ability to wash their feet- the only part of them which really has got dirty, if they are believers, because they’ve already had the rest of themselves washed by Jesus. In life our feet just will get dirty. We’ll get irritated by others, and they’ll get irritated by us. We’ll react differently if we’re filled with the Lord’s grace (being Generous Regarding others At Christ’s Expense. -‘Originally’ God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense, of course.)
      I don’t want to tell you how few times I remember to pray that prayer, but I have great need of more of God’s grace, so I’d better pray it.
      Grace as antidote to cynicism? Please, God, help me!

  9. 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

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

  11. 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.

  12. 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

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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. 🙂

  16. 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!

  17. 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.

  18. 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: […]

  19. 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!

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.