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Your identity as a leader: How to avoid 3 traps that will take you out

Oct 23, 2015 | Sean Cullen

Can you be both humble and confident at the same time? 

As leaders, we must be. Growing in leadership is about growing in confidence that you have something to offer, while at the same time growing in humility that no one is less valuable than you.

To become better leaders, we need to grow in humble confidence.

But our growth in this area can easily get hijacked when we seek our identity in three common traps. So much of our journey of faith with Jesus is about learning to find our identity in Him instead of anything else.

You are a leader

Do you ever assess your value based on the success of your work, or struggle with jealousy when you see the success of others? Do you want to be free to lead more effectively? I’m excited that you are here. We need you, because leaders are essential to the growth of our ministry, and indeed to the growth of the church.

Leaders recruit and influence people to work together as they bring a shared vision into reality.

However, leaders cannot do that well when they are consumed with deriving their identity from their leadership success. So how can we avoid these identity traps? Who can we learn from?

I ask myself: “Who is the most humble person I know? Who is the most confident person I know?” Jesus is the right answer in both cases. I believe He has given us an escape from these traps that so often trip us up.

Let’s look at them one at a time.

Mouse Trap by Freek te Water

Identity Trap #1: The Performance Trap

Am I using my leadership performance as a way to acquire love and acceptance, or am I leading out of my security in God’s love and acceptance of me?

Performance Trap by Rick McCharles

This is the most common trap in my life. I begin to take on the identity of my work. If my work succeeds, I am a success, and therefore valuable. If it fails, I am a failure, and therefore worthless. It’s all a lie, I know, but perhaps you can relate.

This false identity traps us in pride if we are successful and causes desperation when things go sideways. People around us can smell pride and desperation. It repulses them and renders us ineffective.

Not long ago one of my ideas came to a place where it had obviously failed after having cost us a lot of energy, time, and money to get it started. It was incredibly difficult to recognize that the solution was not more energy, time, and money, but rather to recognize that the idea had failed and pull the plug on the project. It was one of the hardest and best leadership lessons I’ve learned in my life so far. In order to take action with my failure, I had to escape the performance trap.

What biblical truth must be internalized to overcome the identity trap of performance?

You are a child of the King.

Romans 8 is one of my favourite chapters in the Bible. It teaches me that because I have received the gift of the gospel, there is nothing I can do that will make God more pleased with me.

The performance trap lies to me, and to you, and says: “The death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God, was insufficient to save you. There is something more you have to add to Jesus’ cross so that you will actually be valuable… PERFORM!” This may be the most insidious lie on earth. Run away from it and embrace the cross as fully effective to make you a completely loved and accepted child of the King.

By embracing this truth and escaping the lies of the performance trap, I am able to acknowledge failure while resting in the reality that I am fully accepted. It also protects me from pride when I experience success.

Identity Trap #2: The Comparison Trap

Am I leading so that I get glory, or am I leading to give glory to Jesus?

Possom Trap by Doug Beckers

I have a confession. I treasure those little thumbs in social media that say that people “like” my stuff.

For some reason, I want to have more little thumbs than anyone else. I often catch myself using social media to compare my relative leadership status with other people in my sphere and am tempted to not “like” or share a really helpful post by one of them just so that they don’t get more “likes” than me.

Are you ever tempted by this kind of comparison?

This tendency to compare traps me in small thinking and limits my willingness to surround myself with people who are more gifted than I am. Effective leaders are secure enough to surround themselves with very talented people.

Crab Trap by Frederic Guillory

The identity trap of comparison is baited with the sweet smell of fairness. When I begin a sentence in my mind with “it’s not fair…” I know that I am caught in the trap. Comparison steals my joy and freedom in leadership because God does not treat us the same. When I see a discrepancy because I am comparing myself with someone else, I will either become proud of how amazing I must be (or how much God must love me more) or disgruntled because I got the short end of the stick.

What biblical truth must be internalized to overcome the identity trap of comparison?

You are a steward of the King.

Jesus tells a parable of a wealthy man who owned a vineyard. The harvest was ripe and so he hired workers at an agreed upon wage. Over the course of the day, he kept hiring more workers and promised to pay them the same amount as the first workers, even though they would ultimately work less. At the end of the day, the vineyard owner graciously paid all workers as promised, but the early morning workers complained that it wasn’t fair. They were comparing their wage to the others. Jesus points out that they were actually begrudging the owner’s generosity.

A friend of mine used to say regularly that if God treated us fairly, we’d all be dead. Every day we are alive is a gift from God. He has showered His grace on each of us, and given us each unique gifts and roles to play.

We are stewards of His grace and gifts, and it is not our job to be arbiters of fairness, but rather to maximize what God has given us for His glory. Be free from comparison, and run as hard as you can alongside other gifted leaders so that Jesus might receive glory.

Identity Trap #3: The Competition Trap

Am I leading to achieve a personal victory, or am I leading so as to advance Jesus’ Kingdom?

mouse trap w cheese by j bizzie

You know those moments when a friend speaks truth to you and you remember it years later? One of those moments for me was at a party close to the time of my graduation.

I leaned over and asked my friend, “Do you think it is wrong that I have a burning ambition to be at the very centre of what God does in this world to expand His Kingdom?”

His wise answer? “It depends. Is your desire to be mentioned in history books, or that history books be written about a revival in our generation?”

For me, the identity trap of competition is baited with misguided ambition. It steals my ability to advance God’s Kingdom because it closes the doors of partnership and teamwork. Being a leader for Jesus is not an individual sport. I regularly have to lay aside my desire to achieve an individual win for the sake of Kingdom victory.

What biblical truth must be internalized to overcome the identity trap of competition?

You are a servant of the King.

In Matthew 20:20-28, Jesus is confronted by the mother of two of his followers, James and John. These brothers had their mom ask Jesus if they could be given the seats of honour beside Jesus when His kingdom comes. Naturally, this annoyed the other ten disciples, who in response began elbowing for room at Jesus’ right hand too. Jesus shook his head and told them that they didn’t get it. In His kingdom things work differently. If you want to be the greatest, you have to serve.

Our goal as leaders should not be to beat others, but to serve others. If you are going to be competitive, follow Paul’s instructions by outdoing each other in showing honour (Romans 12:10). Jesus says this, and he models it. He is the Creator God, yet He wrapped himself in humility and became a man. He even submitted himself to death in order to serve us and give us life. He calls us to serve just as He served.

feet in chains

Prepare for your escape from the identity traps

As leaders, we recruit and influence people to work together and bring a shared vision of the future into reality. To do this increasingly well, we must be confident and humble. In order to grow in confident humility:

  • Our identity must come from something other than the success of our work.
  • Our identity must be rooted in something other than measuring ourselves against others.
  • Our identity must stem from something other than ambitious competition.

You can prepare for your escape from these identity traps by knowing who you are in Jesus. Thank God that He has given you a new identity founded in Him. Now stand firm in it. Don’t shrink back. God has made you to lead.

You are a child of the King.
You are a steward in the Kingdom.
You are a servant of the King.

About the Author

Sean Cullen

Sean serves as the National Director of Power to Change – Students, leading P2C on its mission to help students discover Jesus and mobilizing the organization to focus and increase capacity for the task at hand: to be able to see the day when not one of the 2.5 millions students in Canada graduates without engaging in the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.

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