“To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means.” ~ Brennan Manning

One of my closest friends serves as a spiritual director for pastors and Christian leaders all around the country. One day he was meeting with a pastor who was weighed down by some leadership challenges he didn’t quite know how to navigate. They were driving together to spend a few hours out in the country, and on their way they passed a huge church that the pastor had founded and left years before.

As the pastor looked at the magnificent building, he shook his head and said, “Anger built that church.”

“What do you mean?” asked my friend.

“Everything I did to build that church from nothing and make it a success was fueled by anger at my father, who believed I would never amount to anything. I built that church to prove to him he was wrong.”

No doubt that was a powerful moment of self-realization and transparency for that leader, and I honor the courage and humility it took for him to get there. His admission, though, also points to a broader issue in leadership that is seldom discussed, even though it can have a huge and often devastating impact on any leader’s effectiveness, as well as produce all kinds of collateral damage in his or her family and relationship with God.

I’m talking about the darker motives that often drive us as leaders. With my coaching clients, I like to call these “shadow motivations,” because leaders are often unaware they have them at all, and even if they know about them, often don’t see how profoundly they drive their leadership. We’d much rather believe that we have only the noblest of motivations as leaders, or at least believe that our noble motivations so far outweigh our darker drivers as to make them insignificant.

And why not? For most leaders, those noble motives are really there, and they’re really strong. Leaders want to help. They want to make life better. They want to serve, to inspire, to heal. They want to make a difference. All true. All good. So what, then, if a darker motive shows up every now and then? What’s the harm, really?

One of the principles we study in coaching is how the things we refuse to accept about ourselves end up controlling our lives. The principle is summed up in this pithy phrase: “What you can’t be with, rules your life.” In other words, if I “can’t be with” failure, my life will inevitably be ruled by a driving need to win or succeed in everything I do, at any cost. Or if I “can’t be with” weakness, I’ll wrap my life around the driving need to always be strong, and judge my own weakness as hideous and utterly unacceptable.

“What you can’t be with, rules your life.”

So, as a leader, what is it you “can’t be with”? Failure? Looking foolish? Being disrespected? Being perceived as wrong?

A leader who hasn’t taken an honest look at the shadow motivations driving his or her behavior will often end being controlled by them. There are all kinds of shadow motivations out there, but in my work with faith-based leaders, I’ve found the following shadow motivations to be most common:

The driving need to win.
The driving need to prove yourself.
The driving need to be liked.
The driving need to be in the spotlight.
The driving need to be right.
The driving need to control.

Which of these hit home for you?

If you’ve never had the chance, I’d suggest picking up a copy of Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, by Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima. It’s a great first step toward identifying the shadow motivations that drive your leadership, and getting practical guidance on how to engage them with compassion and grace.

Also, consider hiring a coach. One of the great benefits of coaching is the multiplied impact of partnering with a skilled confidential ally to help you uncover your blind spots and become in every way the kind of leader you most want to be. I know several terrific coaches and would be happy to explore with you what it looks like to work with me or help you find another coach that better fits your needs. Just hit me up for a free exploratory session.

Meantime, I’m curious: What other shadow motivations have you seen at work in faith leaders?

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