3 Keys To Pushing Past Your Personal Leadership Ceiling

Hit any leadership ceilings lately?

You know that moment when you realize you need to grow but you just don’t know how?

Welcome to the club.

We all feel that as leaders.

After 19 years of leading a church, I feel like I hit them quite regularly.

I was talking to a friend the other day who said like he felt he had stopped making progress as a leader. I was shocked, because I saw the progress he was making very clearly. He just couldn’t see it.

He’s been in his current position for a couple of years now and with the same church for 6 years. It’s often in that window that you start to feel like you are hitting a ceiling you can’t break through.

It got us into a great conversation about how you grow as a leader when you’ve been doing something for a while.

Here are three things I’ve learned about my personal leadership ceilings and how to break through them.

 leadership ceiling

1. Don’t run away.

When you keep hitting a ceiling, it’s easy to think you need to leave to grow. After all, it feels like you’ve exhausted your potential where you are.

Sometimes that’s true. And that may be your story.

But often, in my view, it isn’t.

It’s very easy to think “If I just had a new job/organization/position/start I would really grow” when, actually, the opposite is often true. That same kind of thinking leads people to jump out of their marriages or to move to new neighbourhoods looking for a fresh start, only to discover that their issues have followed them. I wrote about that in this post, outlining 5 things that long term leaders master than quitters don’t.

Here’s what I know: when you run away from your problems, you run away from growth.

In fact, when you leave to start a new job in a new place you often slow your growth.

I realize that’s counter-intuitive, but here’s why.

When you start over again you often get to reach back into your skill set bag and trot out all the skills you previously developed.

Applying old skills in a new setting often feels like growth. But for the most part, it’s not.

A deeper kind of growth happens when you stay in the same context and are forced to develop a new kind of skill set.

Which brings us to point #2.


2. Ask these questions to reveal your blindspots.

So if you’re hitting a ceiling, how do you grow?

Often that question seems mysterious, but it doesn’t need to be.

Simply identify your blindspots.

Usually when you hit a ceiling, it’s because you’ve addressed everything you can see that needs to be addressed.

The only thing left to address is what you can’t see—the leadership issues to which you’re blind. If you’re trying to think of what you might be blind to (and that’s the very issue with blindspots, isn’t it?), this Forbes article outlines blindspots that affect many leaders in business (and in church to some extent).

But the best way to identify blindspots on an ongoing basis is to ask questions. More specifically, to ask the questions every leader is afraid to ask.

Here are three questions I’ve learned to ask my team regularly, as painful as the answers can be sometimes:

1. Am I doing anything to make your job more difficult?

2. Am I doing anything that robs you of your passion for the mission?

3. What’s it like to be on the other side of me? (I got this question from Jeff Henderson. He does a 40 minute talk about it that is completely worth your time.)

You need to ensure your team feels safe answering these.

Don’t defend yourself. Don’t come armed with reasons and excuses. Just listen. Thank them. And maybe even get them to help you figure out how you can make it better.

You let them know it’s safe when you thank them for their answers, even when the answers are incredibly painful to hear.

When you ask these questions and are truly open to the answers, your blindspots get revealed.

And when you start asking questions as difficult as these, you grow.


3. Measure accurately.

Most of us driven types want to see progress instantly.

Which is why leadership ceilings are so frustrating. We hit our heads and can’t understand why the ceiling didn’t crumble.

In reality, when you’ve been in a role for a while, growth tends to happen this way.

You hit your head on the ceiling, and you think nothing moved.

You hit it a few times and ask questions like the ones above, and the ceiling moves a few inches.

Check in a few months later, and the ceiling has moved a foot or two. You’ve grown.

Keep stretching yourself, and a few years down the road you’ve moved up two storeys. You’ve grown significantly.

The key is to measure accurately over time.

If you keep working on your blindspots, when you look back a month, you’ll see little change. But look back a year, and you’ll realize you’ve changed a bit. Look back five years, and you might actually have grown significantly. You just didn’t notice until you thought about it.

So learn to measure accurately. Be patient with yourself.

Over time, if you keep working on your blindspots, you’ll grow far more than if you kept jumping around from place to place looking for the quick fix.


What Do You Think?

That’s what I’m learning about overcoming my personal leadership ceilings.

What are you learning?

Scroll down and leave a comment!


  1. Zachary Verbracken on July 16, 2015 at 11:03 pm

    Great thoughts. Reminds me of thoughts you’ve shared before on how you need to continually reinvent yourself in new seasons of life.

    Number three reminds me of the Maxwell axiom: leaders are built daily, not in a day.

  2. Brent Dumler on October 29, 2014 at 10:54 am

    Carey, here’s what I’ve been learning in my recent transition. All types of change, healthy and unhealthy, present the opportunity for us to grow into a better leader. Also, often what is required of us to push through that ceiling is our willingness to step into the unknown or uncomfortable. These moments have always brought maturity and increased faith for me. Love this post (as always).

  3. Chris Shumate on October 28, 2014 at 7:36 am

    Regarding point #1, Bruce Hazen said something very eye opening that pertains in part to this point. “If you don’t realign your work with your purpose, you’re just
    going to relocate that problem to another desk.” The same could be said of
    neighborhoods (U.S. spelling 😉 ). Maybe if we feel we’ve reached a
    ceiling it is because we have become out of alignment with our purpose.

    You mention how people tend to reach into their old bag of tricks when they take on a new role at another organization. There is a book I would recommend to people that are starting something new. It’s called Rookie
    Smarts by Liz Wiseman. I was part of the launch team for the book (as were
    several others). The book talks all about starting every new project, job,
    whatever as a rookie, as if you know nothing about it. Leaving the old tricks
    and ways of thinking behind to move forward in a new role showed Wiseman
    through her studies that people tended to be more innovative.

    Another great question that I heard recently from an old Andy Stanley podcast (I never listened to podcast until you launched yours, so I have you to thank!) with
    Clay Scroggins. The question that Clay talks about asking is, “If you were me,
    what would you do differently?” Your three questions are great too. I need to
    implement all 4 especially when I’m stagnant in growth. Hopefully when leaders
    ask these questions they will receive the feedback and not let their pride be
    another blindspot.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 28, 2014 at 7:43 am

      Great points Chris. I loved that episode of Andy’s podcast with Clay (Clay will be a guest on mine next year as well). And thanks for the quotes and book link!

  4. Ann Gilchrist on October 27, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    Applications all over the place for the church and for business. Great stuff. 🙂

  5. Melrick Bogier on October 27, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Carey you never cease to cause me to evaluate myself as a leader. Your blog along keeps me growing, humbled and eager to grow as a leader. Thanks!!!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 27, 2014 at 3:44 pm

      Thanks Melrick. I’m always trying to make myself a better leader…hence the blog.

Leave a Comment

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