“Do You Lead Yourself?” A Simple Method for Self-Leadership

The first three questions a leader should ask when facing a new situation are:

  1. What is really going on here?

  2. What should be going on here?

  3. How do my habits and foibles contribute to the maintenance of what is going on here?

Of the three the third question is the hardest one to answer, but so often the most important one if you want to be effective as a congregational leader.

The reason why the third question is hard to answer is found in the synonyms of “foible”, of which some are: “weakness, shortcoming, imperfection, limitation, failing…” We know that we all have flaws and they are hard to acknowledge to ourselves. But those flaws in us—as leaders—so often are the greatest impediment standing in the way of pursuing the needed change to help our congregation flourish.

Case in point: as the lead pastor of a large congregation my leadership capacity was limited by nagging self-doubts that weakened my confidence. My coping strategy was to try to become an expert in anything I had to do. Believing I had expertise strengthened my confidence and that in turn helped me to step up in leadership. But the problem was the time it took for me to develop what I believed would be sufficient expertise. Too many times my need to take that time slowed down progress in congregational change. My coping strategy was my “shortcoming, limitation, failing…” and I too easily became a bottleneck in congregational change and it led me to the brink of burnout. It took a sabbatical and a prolonged period of reflection on question #3 to sort it out. The fix? I had to learn to delegate tasks that I was not an expert in. Bottleneck gone.

My training and experience as a certified executive coach has provided me with humbling occasions to come alongside pastors who struggle to recognize and deal with their own habits and foibles that impede their leadership.

  • Procrastination. Leadership is stressful and procrastination is an all too common mechanism for stress reduction. But looming deadlines and reduced timelines increases stress and that typically results in less than best effort and even total fails.

  • Poor time management. It is so easy to be ruled by “the tyranny of the urgent” (Stephen Covey) and give less priority to what is truly important.

  • Being too much in your own head. Thinking we already have it all worked out is such an easy trap that leads to overlooking the wisdom and needs of others.

  • Locked faulty points-of-view. When our perspective on “what is really going on here” does not really reflect current reality the chances our leadership initiatives will fail go up substantially.

  • Need I go on?

Asking question #3 is a way into self-leadership. Self-leadership is about growing more self-aware, seeking to understand our habitual thought patterns and behaviours that disable our leadership capacity and then working to change those shortcomings. It is unattractive—and often humbling—hard work. But the reward is worth the price if it will help us to better help our congregation.

An excellent simple approach to self-leadership arises from the work of motivation psychologist Gabriele Oettingen. Her four steps for self-reflection are captured in the acronym WOOP.

WISH: What do you wish to see happen? What is the concern you have? This desire may be for your congregation or yourself. Concern is a ‘push motivation’ for change.

OUTCOME: What is the best way to fulfill your wish or deal with your concern? Imagine the best outcome in your situation. Explore its nuances. Visualize it. Richly imagining the desired outcome like this anchors a goal in our thinking and becomes a ‘pull motivation’ for change.

OBSTACLE: This is where you ask question #3 -- “How am I standing in my own way and disabling my leadership capacity to help others attain this outcome?” This is the step where you need to dig deep enough to recognize the unhelpful behaviour, the bad habit or the off-base assumptions that are your own thorn in the flesh. In many cases self-discovery in this step can feel like a moment of fulfillment and relief.

PLAN: Finally ask yourself, “So what am I going to do when I run into this obstacle?” Become mindful of cues that point to your obstacle in operation. Devise self-talk for those moments, work-arounds, small fixes—ways to circumvent or overcome that obstacle. Describe the PLAN as an IF-THEN statement: “If obstacle X occurs then I will perform behaviour Y.” Repeat this IF-THEN statement to yourself a few times to reinforce it in your thinking.

Then put your plan into action. Try it, reflect on your experience, learn from it and adjust. It is an iterative process. Along the way you may well discover how hard that habit is to break, which can increase your conviction that your self-leadership is needed. But also along the way you can see the old behaviour starting to crumble and be replaced with the new. Self-leadership in this way renews us all for the leadership of others.

What stands in the way of greater flourishing in your congregation? For most leaders the first answer to this question is the character of the congregation. But what if the actual first answer is found in your own character?

Dr. Peter Coutts is a consultant, speaker and certified executive coach. He is the author of the Alban Institute book Choosing Change: How to Motivate Churches to Face the Future.

Explore Dr. Oettingen’s method further at her website www.woopmylife.org