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Hitting the Ceiling

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         I have spent my adult life studying leadership. It fascinates me. Introduce a good leader into a messy situation and eventually the situation improves dramatically. Put a bad leader into a good situation and before long things aren’t so great anymore. It is an undeniable fact that leaders greatly influence whatever they touch.

But there is a second truth that is also important, though less often recognized. Leaders, no matter how gifted, inevitably hit the ceiling of their ability. They may experience repeated success over a period of time, but eventually they will encounter a problem for which they have no answer. Everyone eventually reaches the end of themselves.

The apostle Peter provides a dramatic example of this phenomenon. He would have won the “Most Enthusiastic” award among the twelve disciples. He prided himself in his loyalty to Christ. He was repeatedly the first to answer his Rabbi’s questions. He appeared to be fearless in his divine service. One day he realized Jesus was preparing for a great undertaking. Peter, in his typical zeal, prepared to go with his Lord. But Jesus declared: “Where I am going you cannot follow Me now” (John 13:36). This declaration shook Peter. He was certain there was no place his Lord could lead him that he would not follow. But the truth was that Peter had reached the end of himself. Until he grew personally, he was stuck.

Peter refused to see his limitation. Jesus assured His erstwhile disciple that, though he could not follow Him then, he would one day. Jesus was a master at growing people, and He was committed not to leave Peter where he was. Of course, Peter would become a miracle working, spellbinding preacher who God would use to add thousands of people to the Church. But those victories would occur only after God grew Peter’s character and walk with God.

Though we are often oblivious when we become “stuck” in our personal growth, the evidence is compelling. Betty became the manager of a local retail store. During the first two years in her new role, she energetically updated displays and reorganized the staff. Morale immediately improved. Betty implemented several new ideas that had a positive effect. But recently a competitor has opened a store in the vicinity and is drawing away many customers with its slick marketing campaign and cutting edge technology. Betty has been alarmed at her store’s rapidly declining sales. It seems like her competitor has all the latest gimmicks and marketing tools. Betty is afraid she cannot compete. She has lost her joy in her work and is considering resigning to escape the pressure cooker her job has become.

Jim has been the pastor of First Baptist Church in a county seat town for ten years. His early years were not always easy, but they were rewarding. He led his church to commence several new ministries that reached many people in the community. Jim hired several staff people who infused fresh new ideas into the church’s ministry. But lately things have plateaued. Attendance is flat. Three key staff members recently moved on to other churches. The excitement and optimism in the congregation is flagging. Jim wonders if he is experiencing spiritual warfare or if this slump is simply a sign that the Church in America has grown lethargic. He also wonders if he should dust off his resume and begin looking for a new field of service.

Mark and Sarah were thrilled when they became parents. Their son Jason was the apple of their eye. They enthusiastically embraced parenting. They were constantly taking Jason on field trips and playing games with him. Their house regularly resounded with sounds of laughter. But Jason is now sixteen and parenting is no longer enjoyable. Jason seems to have no interest in spending time with his parents. He is either sequestered in his room or out with friends. Conversations typically end in argument. Mark and Sarah wonder where their sweet, happy child went.

These stories are commonplace. In each case, people began as successful leaders. However, eventually they reached the end of what they could handle successfully. It is easy to blame the competition or church members or adolescence for our problems. But the truth is that the leadership ability that made us successful yesterday does not ensure our success tomorrow. We must keep growing.

Betty could quit her job and escape the pressure at work. Or she could determine to grow as a leader. Perhaps she could visit her competitor’s store and closely examine its products and marketing techniques. She may discover that, though her competitor has slick advertising campaigns, its product is inferior to Betty’s. Betty could then enlist a marketing firm to highlight the quality of their products. She could train her staff to excel in customer service. Rather than fixating on her competitor, Betty could cultivate a fighting spirit in her staff. Rather than quit in hopelessness, Betty may become more invigorated than ever as she rises to the greatest challenge of her business career.

Jim could move to a new church once he exhausted his ministerial “bag of tricks.” Or he could take a month-long sabbatical to seek God and pray for guidance. Jim might decide to seek creative, talented young staff members with fresh ideas for the church. Jim might restructure the staff so he does less direct supervision and has more time to seek God’s leading for the future. Jim might audit some classes at the local seminary to freshen his ministerial skills. Rather than quitting or hunkering down to do more of the same, Jim might seek to have God reinvigorate his ministry.

Mark and Sarah could resign themselves to the idea that parenting a teenager is brutal. Or they could adjust their methods so their child’s adolescent years are deeply rewarding. They could arrange to have lunch with a couple in their church who are having great success raising teenagers. They could read extensively about how to raise teenagers successfully. They could carefully examine how they relate to their son and try to pinpoint what they are doing to harm their relationship. While the teenage years certainly can be challenging for children and parents, they can also be deeply meaningful.

The key is for leaders to recognize signs that their current leadership approach is no longer bringing success. Leaders must grow continually or they will become obsolete. Quitting often appears easier than paying the price to grow. However, by developing personally, people experience the thrill of achieving their greatest successes. Sadly, many of society’s current problems are a reflection of leaders who stopped growing.

Are there signs that your leadership is becoming stale? Don’t be discouraged! You have an opportunity to embrace one of the most exhilarating experiences of the human race: growth!

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