A couple of years ago, Brenda and I were in an auto accident. I would say we walked away, but that’s not quite accurate. We limped away. Both of us had broken sternums, so every breath hurt. For a week or two, both of us felt stabbing pain in various parts of our bodies whenever we moved, and even after a month, we still hurt in some muscles, which remained very tender for a long time.
As thinking, feeling beings, we have a natural aversion to pain, so in those weeks, we became cautious, moving slowly, protecting ourselves. I think I can speak for both of us that we became somewhat obsessed with not being hurt again. Before the accident, we rarely thought about avoiding a post or door frame or table leg, and our minds weren’t consumed with what the car coming toward us might do.
But pain has a way of doing two seemingly opposite things at once: distracting us and riveting our attention—distracting us from our normal desires, goals and delights and riveting our minds on what ifs, what abouts and if onlys. The event and the pain we experienced created chronic anxiety that didn’t subside until well after the healing process was over.
During the coronavirus pandemic, leaders’ souls were bruised, and many of them haven’t healed yet. They’re still walking with a limp, they have trouble sitting in their chair of confident authority and they’re preoccupied with avoiding getting hurt again. Their emotional and relational margins vanished, so they’re more irritable, anxious thoughts race in their minds, their habits of eating and sleeping have changed and they are hyper-alert as they imagine the next bad thing that will happen. They’re so self-focused that they no longer read people very well, they seldom laugh and they’re sure the divisive nature of our current cancel culture will seep into their teams and tear them apart.
However, in my talks with leaders around the country and across the world, I’ve noticed that those who were healthy before the pandemic weathered the storm fairly well. They had positive relationships with their spouse and children, they were stable financially, they handled conflict by being both direct and patient and they enjoyed their teams. They were anchored in five critical areas of health: mental, physical, relational, spiritual and financial.
The COVID-19 crisis didn’t make people healthy or unhealthy; it only revealed what already existed. The question, then, is how can leaders rebuild margin and restore health to every aspect of their lives?
Find a friend
We’re wounded in relationships, and we’re healed in relationships. God has made us so that we only function well when we give and receive love. We need a few people—at least one—who don’t run away or laugh when we share our deepest secrets, who listen intently and speak wisdom and grace, keep confidences and accept us as we are, not as we should be. Do you have someone like that?
Good listeners have a powerful impact on others. When I was a pastor and people came to me about a problem, they often talked for 55 minutes during the hour. I nodded, uttered “Uh-huh” a few times, and occasionally said, “I’m so sorry that happened” or “Tell me more about that.” At the end of our time, I had given virtually no input, no sweeping analysis and no treasures of wisdom, but they often walked out saying, “That was so helpful! Thank you so much. Can I come back next week?”
The leaders of ancient Israel and Judah identified six towns as “cities of refuge,” where people who had accidentally killed someone could go for asylum. These were safe places for people on the run. Who are the people who give you a safe space to be yourself?
A word of caution, though. Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” I’ve discovered a strange paradox that there are multitudes of people who will weep with us, but we can count those who will truly rejoice with us on one hand.
Think of it this way: If a rich uncle died and left you $50 million, who would you tell? You probably wouldn’t feel comfortable telling everybody you know because they might respond with a hand out . . . or with a grimace that says, “Why you and not me?” But on the other hand, if you were in a car accident and broke your leg, you’d post pictures on Facebook and let everyone know what happened.
Consider your connections
Let’s look at some diagnostic questions that help us measure the quality of our friendships.
- Are your most important relationships transactional?
Some leaders have been promoted to their positions because they proved they can build strong relationships on their teams and encourage them to give their best, but others are classic Type A personalities: driven, tenacious and demanding.
Transactional relationships are perfectly fine when you buy groceries, fill up your car with gas and pick up the laundry. We might engage in some superficial pleasantries, but we’re connecting with these people primarily for our individual benefit. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s something terribly wrong if selfishness is the primary factor in our most important relationships. When this happens, people feel used because they are being used!
Family and friend connections are more than business deals; they’re meant to be sources of comfort, understanding, validation, and joy . . . but many aren’t. When we’re transactional in our important relationships, we want to win in every conflict or disagreement; when we’re relational, we work hard to resolve conflict so both sides feel understood, affirmed and appreciated.
- What are the qualities of true friendship?
Author and pastor Tim Keller outlined four marks of a genuine friend in his blog “Friendship”: constancy, carefulness, candor and counsel. Constancy is a friend in all kinds of times, the highs and the lows and everything in between. Carefulness is when a friend holds your heart tenderly, cherishing it and knowing that it might break. Candor is a beautiful blend of grace and truth, knowing that sometimes honest words hurt, but only like a surgeon’s scalpel hurts as it heals. And counsel is the wisdom and will to give advice, but only if it’s requested, knowing the person so well that we understand how to say it so he can receive it.
This blend of qualities is rare for a number of reasons: we’re distracted and busy, we’re mobile so we don’t put down roots, we don’t want to invest the necessary time and we see people like this as well, kind of strange.
- Do you have any real friends?
In our organizations, we often feel isolated. We’re leaders, and they’re followers. They don’t understand the pressures we feel, nor do they wrestle with the complexities that rumble through our minds day and night. We’ve arrived at a position of authority, and they (at least some of them) are jockeying for the next rung up the ladder, so we’re a bit suspicious of their desire to be friends. Some of us have been burned in the past, and we won’t let our guard down now. Holding them at a distance seems perfectly reasonable and appropriate.
But here’s the truth: If you don’t have friends, you’re on the road to burnout. God has made us relational creatures, and we need love and understanding like a fish needs water. We may be able to toughen up and go on for several years, but sooner or later, we’ll crater.
My recommendation isn’t to make your team your best friends. They may be somewhere in your sphere of friendships, but it’s much better to find a peer or two outside the organization. You may become close to someone who is in the same field as you, or it may be someone who is in a completely different line of work. The point is that you’re not depending on each other for professional advancement, so you’re not competing with each other. When you get together, you can be totally transparent without fear that your friend will use your honesty against you.
This article was extracted from Issue 3 of Inspire Magazine (Fall 2021). Learn how to get your copy of Inspire Magazine.