How Sex, Love and Marriage Are A Lot Like Leadership

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I spent a day recently with a group of ministry friends and mentors, all of whom have been leading their organizations for a long time. In some cases over 20 years.

We had a heartfelt, gut-wrenching conversation about the challenges of leading in the same organization for most of our adult lives.

As I processed our day together, I realized there are more than a few common denominators between leadership and sex, love and marriage.

After all…most of us are trying to make our relationships work out, both personally and organizationally. And it’s not easy.

Just like it’s easier to be unhealthy than healthy, at some points it’s harder to make the magic happen year after year than it is to keep starting over again.

Now as you read this, please know this post comes out of my experience. I realize many marriages don’t make it and I realize that I will have a hard time understanding those dynamics.

I’ve been married to my wife Toni for 23 years. We have not always had an easy marriage, but we are both so thankful that we decided to work through the issues (Toni and I talked openly about the struggles in our marriage here).

Similarly, I’ve been in leadership with many of the same people for 18 years in the same community. It hasn’t always been easy, but there we’ve seen some incredible things together.

While these reflections come out of my personal experience, I offer them in the hopes that they help us all filter through the challenges of life and leadership.

So whether you’re a young leader just starting out, thinking about quitting, are happily engaged in long term leadership… Here are 6 things sex love and marriage can teach you about leadership:

1. There is no such thing as casual leadership.

As much as we live in a culture where casual sex has become normal for many people, it doesn’t produce strong or healthy relationships. Similarly, there is nothing casual about leadership.

Like a healthy relationship, it takes work, effort and commitment over the long haul. As much as we try to make things easier and easier in our culture, leadership will remain challenging by its very nature. Just like great relationships—it will always take work, effort and commitment.

2. At some point you need to choose between serial commitment and long term commitment.

Someone once told me that commitment in our culture has shifted from life-time monogamy to serial monogamy; you’re with someone exclusively for a few years until you move on.

Take a look around you. Many leaders approach leadership the same way. They’re with an organization for 3-5 years and then they move on.

I’m not saying that’s always a bad idea, but most of the people who make significant impact in an organization stay at least a decade. If you think about most ministry leaders you admire and who have transformed their organizations and communities, most have been there their entire lives.

I blogged in more detail about why most leaders leave their organizations too soon in this post.  Regardless, at some point, every leader needs to choose between serial commitment and long term commitment.

3. It’s easier to leave or have an affair than it is to work through your issues.

This is the gut wrenching part. Every leader I know who has been in leadership for a long time has been tempted to leave, tempted to pursue other interest and hit cruise control…in other words, been tempted to have an affair on what might be their real calling.

Very few couples who make it over the long haul do so because they have “no issues”. They stay when it’s easier to leave. (By the way, this New York Times piece by Wendy Plump is an the most haunting article I have ever read on having an affair.)

4. There will be some joyless seasons.

It’s not all dancing and singing all the time. Every leader I know who is in long term leadership has either had to scale significant organization issues or even personal crises. God uses dark nights of the soul to grow us and shape us. (If you’re interested, I blogged about how I got through burnout to recovery here.)

But here’s the promise. If you’re being faithful, your emotions eventually catch up to your obedience.

5. As hard as it is to admit, wise people realize that they are the problem.

So many relationships fail because one partner says the other partner is the problem. I lived like that in my marriage and in my leadership for a season until I realized, gulp, that I’m the problem. In fact, the longer you stay in a relationship or leadership the more you will have to come to terms with the grinding truth that you are the cap on progress.

That’s why serial relationships and serial leadership is so wide-spread. Leave soon enough and you never have to look in the mirror. It’s always someone else’s fault.

Wise people understand that embrace that they are the problem. I tell myself almost daily that I am the problem in leadership where I serve, and that potentially God might work a solution through me.

Wise people also seek help in identifying their blind spots and problems by gather mentors, counselors and friends around them to help them spot their issues. They are also wide open to hearing about problems from the people they work with.

6. There is a certain joy that can only happen after years of being together.

When you are able to work through your issues in a marriage, everything gets better. There’s a certain joy that comes in being with the same person for 23 years. We know things about each other that no one else can know. We can read each other better than anyone else can read us. And the deep pleasure in simply being together grows every year.  There’s an intimacy that only time can deliver that is almost hard to put into words.

That’s one of the things I love about working with some of the same people for years and years. There are stories whose mere mention brings a smile to everyone’s face. The trust runs so deep. And there’s a joy in just knowing that you’ve been in this together for so long and it’s making a difference.

Let me guess your next question: am I saying you should never leave?

No. Not at all. I wrote here about 5 signs that will tell you it’s time to move on and Ron Edmondson offers some great thoughts on the subject. But I do think many leaders leave too soon.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.