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How to Lead When You’re In Over Your Head

over your head

Here’s a leadership secret.

Almost anyone who has ever led anything significant has felt like they’re in over their head at one point or another.

You might be there right now.

I hear from young leaders all the time or leaders who have moved into new roles who tell me they’re overwhelmed by the responsibility of leadership. One young leader put it this way:

I’m basically…new to all of this and feeling completely over my head. Knowing I am called to be here and not knowing how any of this is going to work, [the] leadership issue for me is feeling so very very insecure on so many levels.

I get that. I’ve felt like I’ve been in over my head many times:

From my teens right through my thirties, I was often the youngest leader around a lot of leadership tables and had to learn how to lead with people much older and often much wiser than me.

I was in law before ministry. First year law school was overwhelming for a liberal arts major, but I found a way through.

I really never saw myself as a pastor, and had to figure out how to lead a church in real time when I got called into ministry.

I really had no idea how to write a book. I’ve now been able to publish three, including my latest, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversation That Will Help Your Church Grow.

I had no idea how to launch a book (apparently books don’t launch themselves), but learned on the fly and saw my latest book become a #1 Amazon best-seller in multiple categories.

Whether you’re trying to launch something new, moving into a new and overwhelming role, or just being the young leader around a seasoned table, everyone gets overwhelmed.

So…how do you lead when you’re in over your head?

What follows are 5 guidelines that have helped me.

1. Stay humble

Humility is a leader’s best friend.

It’s one thing to be in over your head but pretend you’ve got it all figured out. Your insecurity will drive you to pretend you know something. Don’t.

Humility is a leader's best friend. Click To Tweet

It’s such a bad strategy; the quickest way to alienate the people around you is to pretend you know what you’re doing when you don’t.

People will lose confidence in you quickly and begin to dismiss you as arrogant.

On the other hand, don’t repeatedly throw yourself under the bus either saying things like “I’m no good at this” or “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

That’s not true humility. That’s a lack of confidence.

Instead, just be truthful and express a humble confidence in the long term outcome. Say things like “This is new to me, but I’m sure we can figure this out together.”

Or “The learning curve is steep right now, and I’m grateful for a good team around me. We’ll get this done somehow.”

Sometimes when you’re really shaky, any confidence you’re expressing is in God, not in yourself.

I realize that’s good theology in every season, but sometimes the only confidence you will have is in God. That’s more than okay.

Sometimes the only confidence you have as a leader is in God. That's okay. Click To Tweet

2. Get a great team of people around you who are smarter than you 

You really can’t do this alone.

The more alone you are, the more difficult it will be.

So…get some mentors to build into you. If no one’s offering (they rarely do), just ask.

Recruit the next and brightest leaders you can find and mobilize them.  Here are 5 tips on how to attract and lead leaders who are better than you.

The more alone you are as a leader, the more difficult it will be. Click To Tweet

3. Become an avid learner 

Just because you don’t know something now doesn’t mean you can’t ever know it.

Become an avid learner.

Get up early. Read everything you can. Take notes from everyone around you. Live and lead in active learning mode.

You need a steep growth curve in this stage.

Make sure you spend time every day learning and growing.

And don’t spend so many hours working in leadership that you can’t work on your leadership.

Just because you don't know something now doesn't mean you can't ever know it. Click To Tweet

4. Grow comfortable saying “I don’t know”

Insecurities run deep in most of us. And often our fear is that when people realize how little we know they will reject us.

But when you tell them you don’t know, two things happen.

First, they’re glad you realize what they already know—that you don’t know.

Second, they probably like you a little bit more because your admission you don’t know makes you more relatable, more human.

Don’t rest at “I don’t know” though. Tell them you’ll find out and report back. But at least admit it. Don’t bluff.

Great leaders grow comfortable saying I don't know. Click To Tweet

5. Trust God 

Yes, I know this sounds a little cliche. But it’s so true.

Many of us experienced a specific calling into ministry. If so, you need to trust God to get you through it.

In the absence of a clear calling (as I outline here, not everyone receives a ‘call to ministry’ in the transition sense), if you are serving in the area of your gifting and passion, long term things almost always get better.

Sometimes you just need to trust the Giver, not the gifts.

The tension in leadership is you will be tempted to trust the gifts more than you trust the Giver. You’ll so badly want the gifts that you don’t have or that are underdeveloped that you’ll grasp at them unwisely. Or when you develop a skill and become great at something, you’ll forget the Giver and place all your confidence in the gift. Both are mistakes.

Great leaders always trust the Giver more than they trust the gifts.

Great leaders trust the Giver more than they trust the gifts they've been given. Click To Tweet

If the gifts you need aren’t developed yet to the point they need to be, just keep working. Be diligent. Don’t give up. Trust that the God who got you into this will get you through it.

Naturally, sometimes we’re in over our heads because we’re doing something we’re not gifted for, called to or equipped to handle. That’s a whole different subject.

But most of the time, we just need to persevere a little longer.

Trust that the God who got you into this will get you through it. Click To Tweet

Need More Time To Get It All Done?

the high impact leader

Exhausted thinking about how much work is ahead of you?

Good news. A small investment will pay huge dividends in getting you healthier and freeing up time to make your organization healthier.

I’d love to help you do that.

I’ve helped over 3000 leaders free up hundreds of hours each year and often 3 hours a day to do what they feel they never have time for and get healthier in the process.

The High Impact Leader course, is an online, on-demand course I designed to help you get time, energy and priorities working in your favour.

It’s perfect for leaders who feel like they never have enough time in the day to get the really important things done.

Many leaders who have taken it are recovering 3 productive hours a day.  That’s about 1000 hours of found time each year. That’s a lot of time for what matters most.

Here are what some alumni are saying about The High Impact Leader Course:

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for providing the course again. It has absolutely made an impact in my life and family already that I can’t even describe.” – Joel Rowland, Clayton County, North Carolina

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A game-changer.” Pam Perkins,  Colorado Springs, Colorado

Curious? Want to beat overwhelm and have the time to reflect, rest and reinvent yourself?

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What Are You Learning?

What have you learned about leading when you’re in over your head?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

How to Lead When You’re In Over Your Head

10 Comments

  1. Samuel godswill bassey on December 23, 2019 at 7:19 am

    To keep team that smart around me.to keep building yourself and always seeding for the giver help than the gift you have.

  2. Ben Patella on December 22, 2019 at 11:53 am

    Hey Carey,
    Couldn’t agree more with your #1 being ‘humility’. I just got into full time ministry and have been drinking from a fire hose over the past 1.5 years. But, humility with confidence has been key. When I forget either of these things it leads me away from casting vision and encouraging my team because I’m discouraged.

    One thing I recently started doing that is a practical, emotional and spiritual help is to celebrate small victories. I think this is in alignment with the ‘Trust God’ item in your list. My vision for the future is so big it’s impossible to accomplish at a rate my patience (actually, lack thereof) will allow. I found myself discouraged because we aren’t there yet, partially because I’m learning along the way how to get there. I finally took stock of my inner discouragement and have begun journaling a list of small successes and examples of Jesus’ presence in our ministry and encouraging my team to do likewise! Now, I’m recognizing that even though I’m in over my head, Jesus is keeping it above water and has us on the way to achieving this huge, God-given vision, on his timeline, even as I deal with my own impatience.

    Merry Christmas and thanks so much for your podcast, books and blog!
    Ben

  3. Trabelus Whitfield on December 21, 2019 at 9:22 am

    Great Stuff!!! Carey, I became lead pastor at a fast growing multi-site church in NY in 2016, and had never heard of you. I went to the 400 Hundred Gathering (I think that’s what it was called) that year and one of the pastors on staff saw you and was star stuck!!! Truly geeking out!!! It was hysterical, mostly because I didn’t know who you were. He had lunch outside with you, on the churches lawn with a few others who flocked around you and I joked that this is what it must have looked like when Jesus sat outside and taught his disciples and followers! Fast forward to 2019… Now I know who you are myself, I’ve read “Didn’t see it coming” (have a signed copy, 😊) and I learn so much from your podcasts and blogs like this. I hate to admit, the thing God has revealed to me the most through your ministry is that I’m more prideful than I ever thought!!!😳😳😳

    Long story short, the old me probably would have never written this. Thank you for your ministry, and thank you for sharing. I can only imagine that there are countless other people like me that are quietly reaping the benefits of your ministry, along with the numerous folks who do tell you! I’m glad to be in the number of those who express their gratitude… No longer silent!

    Next time I see you in person (God willing)…I admit… I’m going to geek out…probably a lot, and take the lunch opportunity to learn from you in person while some other guy is looking at me talking about how we look like didciples sitting at the get feet Jesus!!!😂😂😂

  4. Mike Borgert on December 21, 2019 at 9:05 am

    Thanks for this post! Even though it’s a bit dated, this is the first time I’ve seen it (and I’m regular blog reader). It is a good reminder to be mindful of character at least as much as competence. These five tips I think are all really just derivatives of the first – stay humble. It is so, so important. Humility means, being ok with saying “I don’t know” and realizing there is so much we can’t do ourselves or that others can do better (gathering a great team) and always learning and above all trusting God as you suggest. I might add…say thanks (to God, of course) but to others on your team and in your church…often. Most often when I’ve seen leaders trip up, it hasn’t been because of some egregious and obvious moral failing like an affair or embezzling money (although unfortunately those things happen as well), but because they didn’t stay humble and kind and teachable and interdependent with their team and dependent upon God. Thanks Carey for calling us back to basics and keeping it simple. You do such a great job of clarifying that in so many ways, though situations and contexts may be complicated, leadership is not. It is hard, yes, but it is not complex. It is about being fiercely committed to doing what we are called to do and doing it in the right way. It is about knowing who we are and what God has called us to do.

  5. Brandon May on October 23, 2015 at 11:52 am

    Carey,
    I’m 30 years old and just planted a church in Augusta Ga in March 2015. Since then, I have been so insecure. Ive wondered if people will respect me because of my age. Ive doubted my ability to know what to do next. I’ve even felt like I had to come up with all of the answers. Thinking like that is so stressful and I know that at that pace, I would not have lasted much longer. So I ran across your blog when a friend of mine posted it in his timeline a few months ago. I had never heard of you but I gave it a shot and your podcast and blog have led me to a place of confidence. However this new found confidence isn’t rooted in my own abilities. Its rooted in the practical truth that as a leader, I dont have to have all the answers and that through allowing some key role players to speak into my life, help me think through the details of our church, and even make decisions with me will help our church be far more successful. There is so much freedom in not having to be awesome! HAHA! Thanks for all that you do. I am still learning and have much to learn but I am committed to the process of being a student and I owe much of that mindset to you and your leadership. Thanks!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 23, 2015 at 12:36 pm

      Brandon…that is amazing. Wow. Thank you for sharing that. That’s my hope and my prayer as I write…that God will us it to encourage leaders like you. God will give you everything you need to lead Brandon. He loves you deeply.

  6. Kaity on October 16, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Hi!

    Thank you so much for posting this. I’m 25, and I just took what is, for me, a huge leap of faith. I left my job as a teacher in NC to move to DC, and I’m about to start a leadership position on Sunday at a new church and a new full-time job on Monday. I know I’m following God’s calling, but there have been so many doubts and fears, especially recently. I’ve questioned whether or not I’m cut out for this, but in the end I know that this is where I’m supposed to be. This article helped me stay focused on the task at hand and helped me look at the bigger picture. It also gave me practical advice to make sure I continue growing and don’t get too overwhelmed.

    Thank you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 23, 2015 at 12:37 pm

      Katy…wow. Congrats! What a BOLD leap of faith. God honours risk made in trust. I’m cheering for you and praying for you.

      Carey

  7. Wayne Stiles on October 16, 2015 at 8:32 am

    So, so practical, Carey. Thank you for the encouragement to trust God when leading is tough. Thanks again.

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