What do you know about yourself?
Well, probably more than anyone, right?
And yet every one of us gets surprised when from time to time, our spouse points out something we had no idea we did or were like.
Like telling you that you’re a loud eater (nobody can watch themselves eat), or that no, those pants and that shirt don’t match.
Those are little things, but self-awareness runs much deeper among great leaders.
The best leaders become students of themselves. This isn’t some strange form of narcissism or self-absorption.
Just the opposite. The best leaders ask themselves and others piercing questions. They’re relentlessly honest with themselves about their strengths and weaknesses.
Top leaders realize it’s easy to ignore the hard questions and even to lie to themselves.
They soberly embrace the truth that of all the lies we tell, the lies we tell ourselves are the most deadly.
Over the last three years, I’ve interviewed 200 top leaders in ministry and business for my Leadership Podcast. You can subscribe here for free.
When I think back over all the leaders I’ve talked to, here are five things I’ve seen the best leaders be extremely realistic about.
1. The Conditions that Make Them Thrive
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, watching other leaders and reflecting on my own life and leadership.
I think people are like plants; the right eco-system helps them thrive.
In the same way that every plant has an ideal soil composition, hydration and humidity level and even hours of sunlight, every leader has conditions that make him or her thrive.
Some thrive at 40 hours a week. Others at 50-60 (my ideal is 55 hours a week. Less and I’m bored. More and I’m overwhelmed).
Some leaders are office people; others more coffee shop people; others operate best with location independence.
Ditto with morning people and night owls.
The best leaders even know how much time they should ideally spend in meetings and spend alone. They know how many days off keep them at their best, and they know how much time they should devote to hobbies, outside interests and friendships to keep them at their best.
If you’re withering and dying, chances are something’s off in your eco-system.
2. The Dark Side of Their Motivation
Here’s the truth: your motives are mixed.
As pure as we all want to be, everyone has enough ‘self” in them to ruin anything.
Any leader who thinks their motives are 100% pure is a dangerous leader. They never are.
The danger comes not because their motives are mixed, but because they can’t see that their motives are mixed.
Are you getting married because of what you expect to get from her or because of what you want to give to her in love? There’s a big difference. One sows seeds for chronic disappointment. Another sows the seeds for a Christ-dependent marriage.
Do you want your church to grow because you really want to reach people or because it will look good on you?
Do I want people to read this post because I think it will help them or because I want to see how many people read it?
Did you leave that comment on social because you cared? Or, because you’re trying to make a name for yourself, hurt someone or show the world how smart you are?
I know these are awkward questions, but they will push you to brutal self-honesty. Even more than that, they will be questions you bring to God.
They’ll fuel your confession. They’ll frame your repentance. They’re the questions that will change you forever.
It’s not like you’re going to solve the problem of motivation. You’re human. Your motives will always be mixed.
But if you ask yourself the hard questions, other people won’t need to. Or at least they won’t need to nearly as frequently.
3. The Gap Between Who They are Privately and Who They Are Publicly
In the same way that our motives get mixed, there’s almost always a gap between who you are privately and who you are publicly.
Ideally, you should think there’s more of a gap than other people do.
And if you think there’s no gap (when of course, there is) you’re in trouble.
The problem stems from this: in public, you want to put on a great face. But in private, you feel like you can be yourself.
Our neighbours moved recently, and after we caught up with them I was joking around with them.
I said to my friend, “I’m sure there were moments where you heard the pastor and his wife arguing. That must have been amazing.”
He said “Are you kidding me? We never heard you. Not once. Are you telling me you never heard us?”
“Actually,” I replied, “I never did.”
Life’s like that, isn’t it?
Sometimes you’re yelling at the production crew and the next moment you’re on stage welcoming people.
One of my goals in life is to make the gap between public and private as thin as possible.
That happens in two ways.
- Be more honest in your public talk. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. (We have a great marriage overall, but we’ve had to fight for it. I wrote about that here.)
- Show more integrity in your private walk. Character is who you are when nobody’s looking. Take all the efforts you put into looking good in public into the private moments when no one’s around.
The leaders I respect the most are the people with whom you get no surprises. Their public talk is honest. Their private walk is sometimes even better than their public talk.
In an age where authenticity is a non-negotiate, gaps between who are you publicly and who you are privately are deadly.
4. Their Limits
If you’re young, it’s easy to think you have no limits. Your energy seems boundless, you can do anything you put your mind to and the future is bright.
But the truth is all of us have limits. And the older I get, the more I’m aware of mine.
I hate that I have limits, but the more I operate within them, the better I get. I’ve learned this from so many of the great leaders I know.
This is true of everything from your physical limits to your skill set limits.
Right now I’m planning the details of my speaking calendar for 18 months. As much as I hate it and I think it makes me sound wimpy, if I have an all-day event planned where I’m speaking morning, afternoon and evening, I always ask if I can head back to the hotel for 3 hours in the late afternoon. Sometimes I sleep. Sometimes I just need to refuel alone.
I still hate admitting that this is true. I wish I was a robot who could go non-stop, but I know that if I go all day for multiple days a few things will happen:
- I’ll be less than stellar in the evening session.
- I’ll be exhausted the next day (and not much good to anyone)
- If I keep it up, I’ll burn out. (That happened to me over a decade ago, and I never want to go back).
I’ve realized this, the more I respect my limits, the better I’ll perform. There is far more freedom within limits than there is outside of them.
Everyone’s limits are different. I know mine.
The same is true with skill set. You can train yourself to do almost anything, but you’re likely only going to excel at a few things.
The best leaders aren’t generalists, they’re specialists.
They’ve learned that if they stick to their lane, not only do they perform at a higher level, but it frees up many roles for others to join their team (whether staff or volunteer).
The older I get and the longer I lead, the more I realize I’m only really good at one or two things. That’s it.
Sticking to your key gifting releases other people to operate in their gifting.
5. How They Make Others Feel
There are no neutral interactions.
You either leave the people you meet feeling better or feeling worse.
Yet many people have no idea effect they have on others.
Good leaders know that they always leave others feeling one way or another, and they go out of their way to make sure they leave people feeling better.
Some quick tips on how to do that:
- Ask questions
- Be more interested in the other person that you are in yourself
- Give them your full attention
- Take time to thank them for something they’ve done
- Find out how they’re doing before you find out what they’re doing
- Empathize with their problems; don’t judge them
- Find some way to extend kindness to them
My guess is you are already thinking about a few people who make you feel this way when you’re around them. And it makes you want to be around them more, doesn’t it?
Be that person to others.
If you’re not sure how you make others feel, here’s a brave move: ask them.
If you’re open, don’t defend yourself and ask enough people you know.
And sure, the truth may hurt. But when you bring the truth to God, truth heals.
What Else Do Smart Leaders Do?
They’re on the lookout for potential stumbling blocks that threaten to sideline them. Some are easier to spot. But what about the ones we don’t readily see coming?
Of all the things that take out leaders, the things we don’t see are the most deadly.
In my new book, Didn’t See It Coming, I outline the biggest threats to you as a person and leader—the threats that most leaders miss because they simply didn’t see them coming.
Didn’t See It Coming reveals the seven core issues that take leaders out:
the emptiness of success
In the book, I outline how to reverse all seven challenges, closing the gap between who you are and who you’ve always longed to be.
Interested in more?
Here’s what top leaders are saying about Didn’t See It Coming:
“Seriously, this may be the most important book you read this year.” Jud Wilhite, Lead Pastor, Central Church
“Powerful, personal, and highly readable. ” Brian Houston, Global Senior Pastor, Hillsong
“Whatever challenge you’re facing, whatever obstacle you’re hoping to overcome, whatever future you dream or imagine, there is something powerful for you here.” Andy Stanley, Founder, North Point Ministries
“Uncommonly perceptive and generous…You have to read this book.” Ann Voskamp, NYT bestselling author
“Masterful.” Reggie Joiner, CEO Orange
“Deep biblical insight, straightforward truth, and practical wisdom to help you grow.” Craig Groeschel, Pastor and NYT bestselling author
“This book is sure to help you.” Daniel H. Pink, NYT bestselling author
Over the years, one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about being a public speaker is having opportunities to hang out with Carey…It’s not a matter of if you’ll run into these challenges; it’s a matter of when. Be prepared by spending a little time with a leader who has already been there.” Jon Acuff, NYT best-selling author
“Nieuwhof’s book provides expert guidance…with an accuracy that pierces the heart.” Nancy Duarte, CEO Duarte Inc.
“A refreshingly transparent guide for all leaders in a wide variety of industries.” Bryan Miles, Co-Founder and CEO, BELAY
What are you looking for when it comes to things you’re watching in your own life?
What Have You Seen?
If you enjoy the learning from world-class leaders, listen in to my podcast (for free). A new episode drops every Tuesday.
Episode 160 with prominent psychologist Henry Cloud is a great place to begin on the subject of self-awareness and the traits of great leaders.
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What have you seen in leaders you admire?
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