Being a leader can be a little bit like being a pastor. It’s a fish bowl existence that we choose for ourselves, and we often don’t realize we’re swimming with sharks until it’s too late. They bite. Hard. Sometimes we bring the attacks on ourselves with our clownfish antics, and sometimes predators just circle until they spot a weakness. Either way, blood is drawn and we either die right there or get ourselves out of harm’s way to swim another day.
What’s often neglected in these skirmishes is what happens outside our little public universes. I call them little because we so often mistake spaces like the internet, or the pulpit, or the boardroom for the more expansive space, when in reality our large private worlds are what matter most. It’s there that character is forged and nourished to inform our public utterances, or not.
People who read or listen to the proclamations we make occasionally place upon us expectations of perfection that we will never satisfy. Our sins are colossal simply because they are public. It matters not how many private injuries we’ve absorbed and forgiven, or how many ugly or insensitive things have come out of their mouths to wound us. All that matters is what happens in the fishbowl. Like pastors, if we’re to persevere in our vocational callings, we must believe we are indeed called, and we must lightly weigh both praise and criticism.
Perhaps it would be easier to have only other leaders as friends, just as pastors sometimes choose to make themselves vulnerable only to their peers. Who else understands the unique pressures of the job? But what a boring world that is, and what trite and false things get created and communicated from it.
What is the answer, then?
In thinking about this question, I was reminded of my husband’s teaching from the book of James. He was a pastor once and taught the Bible to adults and children for many years before that. In James, chapter 3, verse 1, it says that not many of us should become teachers because we will face stricter judgment. This judgment, he said, comes not only from God, but from others (and we know who is the more forgiving party in that duo). “We all stumble in many things,”James 3:2 says. “If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect [or mature] man, able also to bridle the whole body.” It would be good for all of us to remember that.
Tucked in among my husband’s notes on this chapter is a nursery rhyme he used to sing to our children. “Be careful of the words you say; keep them soft and sweet, for you never know from day to day which ones you’ll have to eat.” Maybe you prefer Teddy Roosevelt’s “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” Either way, the point is to be wise, as verse 13 admonishes, by “showing good conduct … in the meekness of wisdom.” And if people demand of us perfection or expect us to set ourselves on fire over our mistakes, that’s a clue to learn the lesson well, shake the sand off our fins, and get back in the tank.