9 Hidden Things That Make or Break Leaders

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So you’ve noticed something.

Your ability to lead well seems to fluctuate.

Some days (and seasons) you seem to be in top shape. You have energy and enthusiasm, a clear mind and your decision making is sharp.

But on other days (and in other seasons) you’re sluggish, fuzzy or so burdened down you feel like you can’t lead anything well.

What gives?

What I’ve learned in leadership is that on most days, there are hidden factors at work. These hidden factors can make you excel, or they can completely work against you.

Knowing what’s at work in the background can be tremendously liberating. Once you realize what’s helping or hurting you, you can deal with it.

So what hidden factors threaten to make or break you as a leader?

Here are 9 I’ve identified at work in my leadership. You’ll notice many have to do with a leader’s mind, while a few are more physical. You’ve likely seen them at work in the background of your life and leadership too. Understand them, and you’re ahead. Miss them, and you’re behind (again).

It should be no surprise so many of the factors are in your mind. Leadership, after all, is a mind game.

Work at the mental aspect of leadership and you’ll discover what many leaders have discovered: changing your mind about how you lead, feel and think changes everything.

And while not all 9 are critical issues, wise leaders know these are the factors that make or break them. So they make sure they leverage them to make them, not break them.

1. Weight

Anyone who has led anything remotely significant is familiar with the weight of leadership.

The weight of leadership is the sense of responsibility you carry that goes with your job.

The problem is it never turns off easily.

It follows you home. It accompanies you to bed. It travels with you on vacation.

It’s hard to shake the weight of leadership. You feel it because you are the leader, and you’re likely the leader because you’re the kind of person who feels it.

So what can help lift the weight of leadership? A few things:

Naming it

Doing something fun (the power of distraction)

Prayer

Talking to a friend or mentor who understands

When it’s appropriate, the weight of leadership can spur you toward leading better.  But when it crushes you, all of the benefits of feeling responsible for what you lead disappear.

2. Pace

Many leaders run hard. But you can only run so hard so long.

For many of you, it’s been too long.

Any leader can run hard for a season, but even if you avoid burnout, eventually it becomes counterproductive to run hard all the time.

Why?

Your mood tanks. Your fatigue rises. Your productivity drops.

And—bottom line—it’s unsustainable.

Smart leaders ask themselves: Am I living in a way today that will help me thrive tomorrow? If not, why not?

3. Lack of sleep

I’ve written about sleep before, and I’ve become a sleep evangelist of sorts over the last decade. (Here’s why sleep is a leader’s secret weapon in my view.)

Frankly, my conversion was involuntary. I used to pride myself on how little sleep I got. Now, most days, I unapologetically nap during the day and generally get 6-8 hours every night.

The truth is, before I started taking sleep seriously, I was awake, but I was a zombie. And despite being awake more hours, I wasn’t nearly as productive as I am today.

To say I’ve been 10x more productive since I started taking sleep seriously is probably not an exaggeration. I wanted to write a book all through my 30s. Never got a manuscript done.

I’ve written four books in the last 8 years. Plus launched this blog, and a podcast, started speaking at conferences more often, and worked full time on top of that.

I find when I cheat sleep now, it feels like my world comes crashing down. If I can call an audible and simply admit “Man, I’m tired” and get some rest, things come back into alignment surprisingly fast.

Not convinced being rested is a key component to great leadership? Gary Vaynerchuck and Arianna Huffington have a fascinating conversation about the necessity of sleep for leaders here.

4. The amount of time since your last break

Leaders are often famous for taking little time off.

Like missing sleep, you make a mistake when you don’t make the time to recharge.

I’ve discovered over the years that if I am going to operate at my peak, I need a break or a diversion every 6-8 weeks, if even for a day. An extra day off, a short trip or something that can refuel me (even if it’s somewhat work related) is often really restorative.

The longer it’s been since your last break, the longer it will take for you to feel truly great again. So take a break.

5. What’s happening at home

Too often leaders think they can separate what happens at work from what happens at home.

Leading poorly at home always impacts how you lead at work. Just like you carry the weight of leadership around with you wherever you go, you also carry the weight of a bad marriage or a fractured family with you wherever you go.

If you win at work but lose at home, you’ve lost.

6. Constant connectivity

You can leave work, but thanks to your phone, work never leaves you.

I’m a connected guy, but even I found the constant buzzing of my phone to be too much.

Last year I turned off all notifications on my phone except for phone calls and text messages. And I’m selective about giving out my cell number.

I no longer feel my phone vibrate every time someone emails me, tweets me, likes a pic on Instagram or interacts on Facebook or Snapchat.

This isn’t just a tip for home; it helps at work too. It’s very hard to do any thinking if your phone is buzzing every minute, which for a season of my life it was.

Since your work no longer leaves you, you need to leave your work.

Another change I made last year: sleeping with my phone in another room, turned off. Yep, I know that’s radical. I use an old school alarm clock to wake me up. Most of the time, I’ve slept so well I wake up before the alarm. Imagine that.

7. Your spiritual state

As a Christian, I believe everything starts and ends with God.

Your ability to give love is directly related to how deeply you receive love. Your ability to love is like a bank account: you can only withdraw what has been deposited. Make too many withdrawals, and you go bankrupt.

As you know, leadership is a series of withdrawals. So you better make some deposits.

There is no greater source of love than God.

So, if you want:

To love the people you lead, it starts with God.

Wisdom, it comes from God.

To exude grace, that also comes from God.

When you sever a limb from the tree, it’s only a matter of time until it withers.

8. Nutrition

Almost all food is brain food. Not all of it is good, but all of it affects your brain.

And if you’re paid to think (like many who read this blog are), your nutrition is critical.

Skipping meals, loading up on sugar and otherwise eating poorly impacts everything from your energy level to your blood sugar levels to your ability to think clearly.

I know for me, eating well is essential. Sometimes when I’m getting upset or angry, I realize it’s likely due to the fact I haven’t eaten or I’ve eaten poorly.

9. Change of venue

I realized a long time ago that I am deeply impacted by two things:

Choice of venue

Being in a single venue for too long

Sometimes, you simply have to step away from the screen, get out of the office and change the scenery.

In fact, I find my best ideas come to me when I’m not behind a computer screen or I’m within the first hour of a fresh venue.

Ideas I love often come to me when I’m cycling, doing yard work, in a fresh place (or favourite place that isn’t an office), or doing anything that doesn’t require me to sit behind a screen and write.

As a result, I have 3 or 4 ‘offices’ I use regularly, ranging from space at our church to a home office to the back porch to our living room.

Sometimes all I need to do to get fresh perspective is change venues.

What Do You Think?

These are 9 largely silent factors that impact my leadership.

What are you discovering? What helps you be at your best? What hinders you from doing your best?

If you want to learn how to thrive even more in life and leadership, check out The High Impact Leader—an approach to leadership that’s helped thousands of leaders get their life and leadership back.

Scroll down and leave a comment.

17 Comments

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  4. Al on May 4, 2018 at 10:19 am

    Time in the Word is critical. It makes for a great deposit. You mentioned Spiritual State and Nutrition so it is implied. We must feed our soul and not neglect the spiritual food. The Word reminds us, “man does not live by bread alone.” You could make it #10 or include in #7.

  5. […] 9 Hidden Things That Make Or Break Leaders by Carey Nieuwhof. A great reminder. Several of these grabbed my attention. Which one catches yours. […]

  6. Kellam on April 25, 2018 at 11:53 pm

    When you talk about the amount of time away since your last break – can you elaborate on how churches without denominational oversight navigate through sabbaticals. What that looks like for the Lead Pastor, length of time away, what you do on a sabbatical, as well as offering it to other salaried Lead Team positions within the church and how that looks. Is it part of vacation or in addition to, etc.?.
    My husband is a lead pastor and in 34 years of ministry has talked time and again about taking a sabbatical, but have never found a good tool as a guide for us or our staff. We have taken our vacation time two weeks at a time, so that seems to help to cultivate “real” away time. Your suggestions or resources would be great!

  7. Daniel on April 25, 2018 at 5:59 pm

    Thank you for your great suggestions. I like the part on how it all starts and ends with God. No only do we need to have an awareness of the Holy but be mindful of God in all our relationships. Then we will succeed in caring for self and for others.

  8. rev louise bates jennings on April 24, 2018 at 4:49 pm

    My brother in Christ, I am blessed not only by the love you put in your blogs, but also by the comments of readers and leaders. we are waking to new spiritual possibilities in leading according to the Word of God. This takes time and serious commitment to do the work God has set upon you.

    May His blessing abound upon you and those you have been called to lead… in the precious Name of Jesus Christ.
    rev l b jennings

  9. Cyndy Warnier on April 23, 2018 at 7:08 pm

    Carey–you really did nail this one! I thank you for your candor, and your willingness to spot these things and share them with us. When we name them, so to speak, we recognize them and that is where we can make the changes we need and ask for the help we need. One simple example is Jesus and how he sought time with the Father … some days I think that will finally get easier but the world disagrees! Much gratitude for your insight and care for those of us who lead in ministry. You help make our “lonely circles” a lot brighter.

  10. Becca on April 23, 2018 at 12:16 pm

    I appreciate how simple and practical your messages are. Always powerful and applicable. Thank you!

    • Carol Nash-Lester on April 23, 2018 at 3:47 pm

      I love the idea of having 3 or 4 offices! When I had an additional full-time job, I would take lunch breaks to write at Panera Bread, and those times were more productive than writing at home or my office at the church. I’m going to try that again! Thank you!!!!!!!!!

  11. Dimka Peter Kefas on April 23, 2018 at 12:06 pm

    I’ve been a victim of all the points enumerated above. Thanks for sharing I am taught of seriously. I am blessed. May the Lord continue to increase your anointing in the name of Jesus Christ

  12. Jim Jensen on April 23, 2018 at 10:34 am

    Sleep is important. Now in my 40s, I require a nap on Sunday afternoons. Without it I have 6-8 hours of wasted zombie time. With it, I have 7 more hours of family time to enjoy.

  13. theartist on April 23, 2018 at 10:28 am

    PRAY FOR ME. I work as Lead Administrative Support at my Church. Sundays for me are just another day at the office. I have informed leadership off and on of this issue for many years. However, additional personnel still have yet to be trained to support and/or eventually replace me.
    Yesterday, by the time all of my “required assignments” of the day were completed during the first AND second Worship Service, and I rushed into the sanctuary-just in time to hear the closing benediction. It is my fault honestly, to remain, because of my salary (and NOT trusting God to be my ultimate proivder) which has prohibited me from resigning years ago.
    I am 61 years old now. I am being led to end finally my position here. Scripture reminds me that God’s Truths do not change as “He will provide ALL of my needs, according to His riches in glory.”

  14. Kallen Musonda on April 23, 2018 at 10:27 am

    Continue with the Good work of building leadership in us, you are serving the leaders and leaders are serving God’s people. I benefit a lot from your teachings on leadership, they are practical and motivation Al. Pastor Kallen Musonda from central Africa, Zambia, KITWE. Email :kallenmusonda@gmail.com. P. O. BOx 9 martindale,Central Africa,Zambia, Kitwe

  15. Sheila Beers on April 23, 2018 at 9:34 am

    As I read about the nine areas, I thought of the instance in the Gospels in which the Lord Himself had the need to be refreshed, to get away from the crowd, and so on. I intend to go through the list and add the scriptures that are examples of these needs the Lord Himself had and how His needs were met.

  16. David on April 23, 2018 at 9:13 am

    I have found in my experience running at a high pace for a long time may not result in burnout, but it can result extreme spiritual callousness. When you have no life outside of ministry, you run your ministry as your life. It makes you extremely one dimensional, and even though you spend great deals of time in God’s word, it is more of an academic exercise then a spiritual one. You then begin to treat people as products rather than as individuals whom God loves. You focus more on moving product around then you do on building people for Jesus Christ. Dangerous.

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