6 Signs You’ve Grown Cynical As a Leader (And How to Reverse It)

cynical

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.

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 makes 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. And 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.

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”.

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

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

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 that 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. Hope again. Believe 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.

Win the Battle Against Cynicism

If you recognize yourself in this post, just know there’s help and there’s hope.

I tackle cynicism and six other key issues in depth in my book, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.

I’ve personally navigated these seven challenges in varying degrees, and in Didn’t See It Coming, I not only outline how leaders get taken out by the things they didn’t see coming.

There’s an antidote to each challenge and some very practical steps you can take so issues like cynicism, pride, irrelevance and emptiness no longer define your present or your future.  Once a cynic, not always a cynic.

You can pick up your copy of Didn’t See It Coming here (hardcover, AudioBook or Kindle) and once again (or for the first time) discover how to thrive in life leadership.

To listen to a free chapter of the audiobook on cynicism, click here.

 

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!

7 Comments

  1. Onsite Shredding Belfast on October 18, 2018 at 9:26 am

    Appreciating the hard work you put into your website and
    detailed information you provide. It’s good to come across a
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  2. Rob James on October 2, 2018 at 8:59 am

    Carey,

    Thanks for the podcast with the audible of the first chapter. Will get the book next, but this intro was great for commute to my new call in our denomination office after 12 years serving at my first call Church Plant.

    Have you read Richard Rohr’s “Contemplation In Action?” Pg. 25 says, “Liberals (ignore that word) need to find that rare ability to live happily in a broken world, and still work for its reform. It is a work art that I believe only spirituality can achieve. Mere ideology is not sufficient to the task. Behind every cynic I meet, there was once a youthful idealist who could not make his ideas work outside of his head.”

    My Father-in-law (a pastor) loaned me this book 5 years ago right before I was blessed with a 3 month sabbatical. I underlined, circled, starred that line. I only made it a few pages further and lost the book during that 3 months. Several times since I looked at my shelves and never found it. Then, I cleaned out my office (15 boxes of books) and only brought two very small boxes to my new call last month – there it was, somehow the book that had been missing for 5 years was right in front of me.

    After seeing that and hearing your podcast this morning, I will start reading this book again today and start listening to your new book on my commute home! Thanks for your ministry.

  3. Winnie on September 24, 2018 at 12:36 pm

    Hi Carey,

    Not too long ago I was noticing the cynicism in other people. I was tired of the grumbles and then the Lord showed me quite clearly that I had become cynical. It is nothing that I strive for, ever but there it was. So I had a good internal look…..Not only was I cynical about people but I had become cynical toward God. A couple of very significant things have happened in my family and I felt like I couldn’t trust God. Now that’s a scary place to be. I deeply grieved for what had happened and what wasn’t happening. I prayed fervently and it seemed nothing was changing. No one could identify with my grief….God made no sense to me. And then I came upon Larry Crabb’s book, “When God doesn’t Make Sense.” He unpacked the story of Habakkuk and I’m starting to feel more peace and a greater sense of trust in the God that I know protects (and sometimes heals). I, like Habakkuk, have questioned His wisdom, cried, pleaded and when no answers seemed to be coming I became distrusting and cynical. And then one cannot empathize with the complaints of others. So like Habakkuk, I stand “trembling and trusting” and waiting and listening in prayer so much so that eventually I, like Habakkuk find myself in the middle of the sovereignty of God basking in His love.
    I love the notion of curiosity too. Remaining curious also helps empathy live. Tragedy is a horrible thing but the lack of grief and the lack of trust invites cynicism and dissension.
    Its pretty ugly. Thank God that He is a loving, forgiving God who helps us beyond these things.

  4. Rudy Schellekens on September 24, 2018 at 11:41 am

    Guess I am not built to be a cynic. I trust people unless they give me reasons not to. Each person I meet is a new chance to learn. And whatever others have done, it should never be projected on other people. When I am mad at the dog, I don’t kick the cat – figure of speech!!

    Too many people seem not to be able to make that separation between people. Reminds me of a statement by our current president about immigrants being thugs, thieves, murderers and rapists – and SOME of them may be good people… I prefer to see ALL people as good until they do something bad… And than be upset with THAT person. Saves me from becoming cynical…

  5. Phillip Cohen on September 24, 2018 at 11:17 am

    Carey
    People have told me I’m too much a man of sorrows. I grieve a lot about my sins and many other thinks. What are your thoughts about celebrating our wins?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 25, 2018 at 5:03 am

      Hey Phillip, thanks for your question and comment. I think celebrating wins can be a great thing. If you don’t, eventually your negative mindset impacts the team. Does that make sense? You need to be positive for others sometimes too.

  6. Janet Adams on September 24, 2018 at 10:39 am

    I heard chapter one about becoming cynical. Excellent explanation. Scary to add another piece to the puzzle about solidifying that ugly trait or character that grows and hangs on in one’s life. This post also helped me understand why I was told by my university college education professors to stay away from the teachers’ lounge. The teachers’ room in every school site I attended was dangerous. Seasoned teachers had a plethora of constant complaints, scoffed at new ideas, and disrespected those who were trying to instruct a creative or engaging way. They sat in the same chair around the room’s table and I would not dare sit on their “saved” seats. I get it! Cynicism destroys relationships, ideas, conversation, and a happy spirit. I stayed away and endured the remarks that I was the principal’s favorite teacher. I simply enjoyed the students each year in the classroom and constantly tried switching up my teaching style to learn new ideas. Thanks for your explanation and I will watch for that stealthy attitude.

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