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Why Great Preachers Are Not Always Great Leaders

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A number of years ago, I heard an incredible guest speaker. I was among a huge congregation, and this man had every person’s complete attention.

He was sharing vulnerably about his struggles: from arguments with his wife, to sexual temptation, and even the way being a pastor made him crave the spotlight. It was almost shocking how much he was willing to reveal, given how little he knew his audience.

“So you see,” he said after a dramatic pause, “even pastors don’t have it all together. We’re sinners in need of grace, just like everyone else.” And I thought to myself: “This man has great self-awareness. He must be a leader of great honesty and integrity.”

And then, a year later, I heard the same man in another pulpit, give a nearly identical speech. Same arguments with the wife, same admissions of sexual temptation, same dramatic pauses.

And I had to do a double-take.

Observing him more closely, I noticed this pastor actually seemed to be enjoying giving the sermon, even when sharing about things that should sober or humble any individual! He loved seeing every eye in the crowd fixed on him, even while he ironically was sharing about that very temptation of craving the spotlight. He loved the way congregation members came up to him afterward, telling him, “You are so brave to have shared that.”

It made me think. This leader has self-awareness, but isn’t something wrong here? Is self-awareness really enough?

Our culture thinks it is.

We applaud the CEO who confesses his impatience, insensitivity or temper—because it seems to show he realizes those things are bad and need to be worked on. In 2007, a survey of 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council asked, “What is the single most important capability for leaders to develop?” The top-rated answer? Self-awareness. Know yourself, and the rest will follow.

And yet, we often reward ourselves and others too quickly for self-awareness, when it is only the first step of growth and maturity.

When a leader admits his or her weaknesses in front of an audience, I think to myself: “That’s great that you see that and can articulate it so well. But how will you follow that up? What kinds of steps will you take over the next few months and years in response to what you just shared with everyone? Are you sharing because you want admiration—or accountability?”

Skill is not maturity.

And if we are sharing our weaknesses without a healthy sense of sobriety and grief, we have to ask ourselves whether our self-awareness is a demonstration of skill, intended to impress. If we have no plan to follow up on things we struggle with, is our sharing really much more than a performance of words?

It’s similar to the parable Jesus tells to the religious leaders of his day, in Matthew 21:28-31: