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[Blog] The Gift of Godly Discontent: Feeling ho-hum at the top of your ladder? That may be a nudge...

blog Sep 22, 2021

            According to legend, once Alexander the Great had conquered the then-known world, he sat down and cried: He had nothing more to conquer. I know a little bit how he must have felt.

            One day, I realized I had reached the top of the ladder of success as the president of a growing college. For 14 years, I had dreamed and worked hard as I ascended that golden ladder. I loved the people, the work, the challenges and the excitement of going up each rung.

            And then something changed. I say this happened “one day,” but actually it was something that had been going on for months until the day I became aware of it. “Who moved my ladder?” I wondered. “This isn’t where I want to stay,” I realized.  

           As I was to learn, many leaders are or have been exactly where I stood that day. Who moved our ladders? Who changed things? Who took away the excitement? The joy? The challenge?

            The truth is, where I stood on my ladder was exactly where I had wanted to go—at least,  it was when I started up that particular ladder. What I had to face—and so do many of us—is that it may appear as if someone has moved our ladder. The excitement, joy and challenge dissipate.

           Most leaders go after challenges—whether growing a church or developing an organization, adding staff, boosting productivity or increasing finances. When we have achieved all we set out to, we look over our shoulder and realize where we were when we first felt those giddy emotions and rushed up those rungs. Those were the days when we jumped out of bed every morning. Even at night when we lay our weary bodies down, we felt as if we had accomplished something. We knew we were moving in the right direction; we had climbed a little higher on the ladder. 

            When that level of enthusiasm begins to drain, here’s the reality we have to face: No one has moved our ladder. It’s in exactly the same place it has always been. We have changed. We climbed the ladder—and it may have been the right one—but it’s no longer the preferred or fulfilling one.

            At least, that was my experience. Some may have climbed high on ladders and as they neared the top they said, “Oh, this isn’t really where I wanted to go.”

 

A TIME OF TRANSITION

            In my case, it hadn’t been the wrong wall; however, it would have been the wrong wall had I continued to stay. My ladder had moved. That is, my vision had changed.

            When I surveyed the world from my ladder aware that the passion had diminished, I didn’t hate my ladder or what I was doing. It just felt, well, a bit predictable, even a little boring. “I’ve done this before,” I said. “What’s wrong with me?”

            That’s the question most of us ask ourselves when the thrill of our job subsides. Surely, there is something wrong with me? If something had become defective, I had to figure out what part malfunctioned, fix it and move on. As I pondered that question, I realized that I had been standing in about the same place for several months. Activities had not stopped—I had set things up so that no one noticed my standing still. But I noticed.

            More important, off and on for months I searched and beat up on myself for having lost my cutting-edge enthusiasm. Somewhere in the process, however, I slowly admitted that I wasn’t the problem: The problem was the ladder.

            What had happened to the beautiful, wonderful ladder I had been climbing? Where was the excitement I had felt as I slowly ascended? Where was the inner contentment and joy? Why was there no constant excitement as I stared at the next rung?

            Was it time to hang on, grit my teeth and just keep doing what I’d been doing for more than a decade? Or was it time to climb off my ladder and find a new one? It was a time of transition—but it took me weeks to accept that fact.

            Some people have to move. They’re laid off, fired or are told, “Find a different job.” They’re forced to make changes. But how do we go about making transitions when:

  • All is going well.
  • We’re successful.
  • We’ve achieved more than we ever dreamed.
  • Our friends and critics still applaud our achievements.

            I had climbed higher on the ladder than anyone had expected. After I reached the top rung, I realized something: I had gone as far as I could on this ladder. I had to think about where I was and where I wanted to go next. If it was time to switch ladders, which one should I climb? Or was it time to relax, rest, stand and survey what I had done and enjoy it?

 

A TIME OF REFLECTION

            Most leaders face a top-of-the-ladder situation sometime in their careers—and some more than once. It’s not a comfortable place to be.

            I began my search for resources to assist me in my transitional decision-making. Here are some of the issues I struggled with:

  • What is going on?
  • Why am I excited and scared at the same time?
  • What are the critical questions I need to ask?
  • What are the essential ingredients?
  • What about a successor?

            Before I could move to a new ladder, I had to be certain I didn’t want to stay in my present position. Almost every day I argued with myself. At first, I was too scared to seriously contemplate leaving. I had worked hard, earned the respect of my peers and—for the first time—had brought financial stability into my life. I could stay in my present position until my retirement.

            Or could I?

            Every choice held risk—it was risky to leave my present position, it was risky to stay. If I resigned, should I leave right away or wait another year? How long did I plan before I took action?

             Running programs or institutions bored me, but one aspect of my work still intrigued me. That one part of my work—and it was fairly small—brightened my worst days. I functioned as a leadership consultant. “I want to help leaders reach their highest potential,” I said. I wanted to serve leaders as their dream releaser. 

            In those days, I realized that almost every pastor I met or CEO I consulted with, I was building them up, encouraging them and helping them succeed. Dream releasing was ongoing and always new. Each consultation brightened my day.

            “What does that mean?” I asked myself.

            Even though I wasn’t aware of it, the more consulting I did, the more enthusiastic I became. This sideline forced me to read more books and internet articles, and to listen to more recordings and lectures than I ever had before. Except for my days as a college student, I couldn’t remember when I had felt such a driving zeal to know more and to understand better.

Slowly—very slowly—I realized what I wanted. “I want to be a dream releaser,” I said.

            But was I right to want to do that? I knew that I had the capacity for self-delusion or self-deception: What if I was wrong? What if this was a mistake or a temporary dissatisfaction? What if this was a burnout situation? What if this wasn’t the ladder God wanted me to climb?

 

A TIME OF DECISION

            My transition began with recognizing what I call godly discontent. I had worked hard to help the college move forward—and it had happened. I had met each goal and every challenge that confronted me. Now, instead of feeling joyful and excited, boredom set in.

            My world wasn’t that vast or my accomplishments that great, but I had done more than I had set out to do. I’d stare at my desk calendar and sigh, “I’ve done all this before.”

            For some, the discontent forces them to increase their activity and struggle to recapture the thrill of success. For a short time, I tried to do just that. I thought the answer was doing more. After a few weeks, I realized that “more” didn’t mean greater enjoyment or excitement. “More” simply meant I was busier. How did I regain that enthusiasm? For weeks, I pondered my dilemma. I didn’t talk about it, because I didn’t know how to.

            As I listened to my inner groanings, I admitted that I didn’t want to do more administration. I was tired of fundraising. Dealing with staff issues began to tire me. I didn’t want to do conflict management any more. I didn’t want to schedule more meetings or breakfasts, or accept more speaking opportunities. I cringed at the thought of having to conduct one more job interview. I didn’t want to deal with the financial aspects of our school—even though we were in a healthy situation. Those were typical of the things I had to face that I didn’t want to do anymore.

            I realized I was dealing with inner boredom. That’s what afflicted me, and even once I admitted it to myself, I kept it hidden from others. “I can handle all the job demands in my sleep,” I said aloud. I could do those things—and I had been doing them for 14 years—but I just didn’t want to do them any longer.

            As long as I focused on what was wrong with me, I got nowhere. Once I opened myself to the possibility of God being in this, I knew I was moving in the right direction. What if my discontent was from God? What if this was the first step toward disengaging myself from the old to prepare me for the new?

            That’s when I understood the concept of godly discontent. It meant I was all right and no matter how much effort I forced, I would grow even more disenchanted. I had to switch ladders.

            Only, I didn’t know which one to grab. There were many of them out there, and I could have started climbing any of them. This is what makes the challenge of ladder transition even more challenging than beginning at the bottom of the ladder.

            When you’re at the bottom, your options are most likely limited—whether it is the number of my roles you are qualified to take or the number of organizations recruiting you. When you’ve reached the top of a ladder, however, others notice. You may receive offers you’re not even looking for, and you will have to choose among multiple good opportunities.

            It took a few weeks of internal struggle for me to become fairly confident I would be moving in the right direction if I started to look for a new challenge, a new ladder. I came to realize that after you’ve reached the top of the ladder, you will likely face transition. Because, after all, in life nothing is permanent.

 

Adapted from Ladder Leaders: The Team. The Task. The Transition by Sam Chand (Avail).

 

 

Sidebar: When it’s time to go

 

Before I eventually resigned from the organization I had led for 14 years, I personally traveled all over the country to meet with board members and tell them what I was going to do and why. I even developed a possible successor.

            There are no smooth transitions, because smooth means everything goes exactly as planned. There are only good transitions or poorly executed ones. Of course, I wanted a seamless changeover, but I knew better. We always face the IBs—the inevitable bumps. Our best-laid plans usually don’t work out.

            In making my change, I had a transition plan. I knew who I was going to talk to, when I was going to talk to them and what I was going to say. I can vouch from my personal experience that the time spent thinking and planning that transition made what could have been a negative occurrence a time of positive growth for me and the college.

 

This article was extracted from Issue 1 of Inspire Magazine (Spring 2021). Learn how to get your copy of Inspire Magazine.