A Relationally Connected Leader is a Healthy Leader

by Brad Case

[5 minute read]

 

Leadership can be lonely. In his book ‘Managing Leadership Anxiety’, Steve Cuss makes a cutting remark: “Burnout is more about anxiety and relational isolation than it is about workload”.[1]

In my work I’ve been in the privileged position to come alongside young Christian leaders and ask, “How are you doing?”. Inevitably every conversation begins the same; they talk about their context, workload and what they can see God doing, even in the challenges. Then I dig a little deeper and ask, “How are YOU really doing?” and the responses often shift to a sense of loneliness and relational isolation.

The 3 most common stories of relational isolation I’ve heard over and over from young leaders are…

1. Relational Isolation from God – Young Christian leaders often tell me that they feel anxious and like a fraud when they lead because their internal relationship with God doesn’t match their external persona. This is the big one that young leaders struggle with because their identity is wrapped up in what they DO for God rather than who they ARE in God. Honestly, it’s an easy trap that ANY leader can fall into and requires deep, continual, internal work that centres our identity in Christ and strengthens our sustaining relationship with God. If you’re in need of some spiritual resuscitation and reconnection with God, make sure you read the Arrow Blog by Ed Vaughan on burnout and spiritual disciplines. [I Don't Do Burnout]

 

2. Relational Isolation from Friends – Many young leaders struggle with meaningful friendships and the challenge of leading peers because their whole world is also the context where they serve. Some of them have opted for self-imposed relational isolation because the anxiety and tension of being vulnerable with people they lead is too much to handle. Yet when I look at the life of Jesus, this was not how he engaged with those he led.

Jesus was intentional and strategic about the relational levels he created and the interactions he allowed with those who followed him. He engaged differently with the crowds than he did with the 72 he sent out (Luke 10:1-23). With the 12 disciples he had a more intentional relationship, calling on them to pray with him, share meals together and revealing mystery about the Kingdom of God (Mark 4:10-20). Of the 12 he had a close bond with 3, Peter, James and John; inviting them specifically into sacred moments like the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13). Even John referred to himself as the one that Jesus loved, indicating an even closer, one on one relationship with Jesus. The key to Jesus’ longevity with all these levels of relationship was that Jesus led himself well. He regularly retreated into solitude, but never isolation.

If Jesus needed friends in his ministry life, then so do we! Every leader needs a healthy mix of the following types of relationships…

    • Pastoral friends – people who care about you but who don’t care about your context. These are the friends who will ask you about you, who love you for who you are and not what you do and care enough to support you pastorally the way you support others. To find these people you may need to get out of the rut and join some sort of…
    • Positive Peer group – for fun and fellowship outside of work. You need friends that you can hang out with purely because you enjoy their company and the activity you do together. This is often one of the things leaders neglect most but having fun with others will do you wonders for feeling connected, not just relationally but also physically, mentally and emotionally.
    • Prophetic voices – the Old Testament understanding of the prophet was one who spoke truth to empower. As a leader you need to cultivate trusting relationships with other leaders who are outside of your context, who will tell you to ‘pull your head in’ when you’re acting like God’s gift to the world. Newsflash! That’s Jesus, not you!
    • Professional supervisors or coaches – I’m convinced every leader needs a professional to help them process and work through difficulties in ministry and life. There are just some circumstances you can’t navigate or solve in your own strength. But don’t wait until you’re facing burnout to see a professional. Create the rhythm of seeing one when you’re emotionally and spiritually healthy so you’re even more prepared when turmoil hits.

Relational connectedness takes as much cultivation as your leadership capacity does…and in the end it’ll help increase your capacity and longevity.

3. Relational isolation from senior leaders – one of the things too many young leaders have in common is that they don’t have enough support of, time with or access to their senior leaders to be adequately developed in their leadership. This isolation felt from an emerging leader can lead to discouragement, stagnation or worse still, the young leader rebelling and building their own competing kingdom within the same church or organisation. None of these scenarios have healthy outcomes for anyone involved.

Great young leaders need to be built, not found. Senior leaders, you can best build your young leaders by…

  • Inviting them to paint a vision with you beyond what they can see now.
  • Developing their character by listening to them, caring for them and guiding them towards Christ centred leadership.
  • Empowering them by creating genuine opportunities to stretch their growing leadership gifts (even if the opportunities won’t be done as well as you can do it yourself).
  • Releasing them to begin growing teams and developing leaders of their own, creating a culture of encouragement, accountability and learning.

 

As a leader there are few people that can appreciate the unique responsibility and challenge that leading demands. If you’re a more experienced leader reading this then please, be the kind of leader who intentionally seeks out young emerging leaders, takes them under your wing and asks, “How are YOU really doing?” I’m thankful for the ones in my life who did.

 


[1] Cuss, S. (2019) Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs, Thomas Nelson.