Published on

Have You Become a Hard-Hearted Leader?

Have You Become a Hard-Hearted Leader?
  • Name
    Carey Nieuwhof
If you’re like me, the longer you serve in leadership, the more intentional you have to become at keeping your heart open and fully alive. Hardness of heart is a condition that people on the wrong side of God and people develop. Biblically, Pharaoh suffered from it. Israel did on occasion. And the Pharisees specialized in it. Chances are, the boss you couldn’t stand suffered from it as well. Not exactly great company if you ask me. So it’s a little bit vulnerable to admit you struggle with it. But I do. I’m on constant guard about keeping my heart open and alive. One of the greatest casualties in leadership is the human heart. So many leaders see their hearts grow hard over time. How does it happen? Well, like a physician or paramedic who sees illness or tragedy every day, you develop a way of dealing with the pain. And some of that’s healthy. But if you don’t monitor things carefully, you can move into full seasons where you don’t feel much of anything at all. Your heart can grow hard. One of the greatest casualties in leadership is the human heart. How do you know you’re there, or heading there? Here are seven early warning signs:

1. You don’t really celebrate and you don’t really cry.

A hard heart is a flat heart. Not much gets in. Joy doesn’t. Sadness doesn’t. And while you don’t want to be unstable or imbalanced, it’s actually normal and healthy to feel the ups and downs of life and leadership.

2. You fake your emotions.

Truthfully, we’ve all done this in seasons. And sometimes you need to. When you’re the leader, you ‘have’ to lead in the public eye, and sometimes that means smiling when you’re not happy, showing empathy when you don’t feel it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not a lie nor is it inauthentic if it only happens once in a while. When that happens occasionally, you’re simply being a leader, not a liar. But when faking your emotions become a pattern, it’s a sign something is deeply wrong. And that kind of faking can’t last if you want to lead and live well. Fake your emotions enough times and your leadership will stop resonating with the people you lead. Why? Because you’ve stopped becoming an authentic leader. And authenticity is a non-negotiable leadership quality, especially in our culture.

3. You say “I don’t care” a lot.

Maybe this is more personal than universal, but a sure sign my heart is in trouble is when I hear myself saying “I don’t care” repeatedly. If someone’s upset, I say I don’t care. If someone disappoints me, I say I don’t care. If something doesn’t work out the way I hoped, I say I don’t care. If my actions are going to hurt someone, I say I don’t care. To me, this is a huge warning sign that there’s a problem, because I should care. Even if I can’t change the outcome, I should care. If you really don’t care about the people around you, eventually they’ll stop caring about you.

4. So much of what’s supposed to be meaningful feels mechanical.

Another sure sign of a hard heart is that you feel like a robot. What’s supposed to be meaningful has become mechanical. You’re doing your job. You’re getting things done, but it’s just mechanical. From your personal friendships to your family to work, the feeling’s gone.

5. Passion is hard to come by.

For anything. Your heart and your passion level are deeply connected. Sometimes you’ll try to rekindle your passion when what you really need to do is go deeper, and fix your heart.

6. You no longer believe the best about people.

You know you’re in danger when you meet someone for the first time and you’re thinking about what’s going to go wrong, not what’s going to go right. And the stakes are high when you stop believing the best and assuming the worst. Why? Leaders who stop believing the best about people stop receiving the best from people.

7. You’re growing cynical.

Hard-heartedness and cynicism go hand in hand. Cynicism is simply the death of optimism. And it happens slowly over time. If you find yourself growing cynical, how do you battle back? Easy…become curious. Ever notice the cynical are never curious and the curious are never cynical? I wrote more about cynicism and curiosity here.

So How Does It Happen?

How does your heart grow hard? Here are a few ways I’ve seen hardness of heart get triggered in me:

1. You see the patterns, and forget the people.

In my first few years in ministry, all I saw were people. Then I realized people behaved certain ways. Actually, people behave in certain predictable ways. Unchecked, that can lead to cynicism when you realize the people who say they want to change (and at first you believe them), don’t change. If you become fixated on the patterns of human behavior, not the people beneath them, your heart will grow hard. Patterns are discouraging. People aren’t.

2. You over-protect a broken heart.

People promise and don’t deliver. Your hopes were bigger than what happened. You trusted someone and your trust was misplaced. Really, that’s just life. It happens to everyone. But how you respond is so critical. It’s easy to shield yourself from people. It’s easy to stop trusting, stop loving, stop believing. But that would be a mistake. It kills your heart.

3. You stop looking for what’s good in people and situations.

Because life has its disappointments, and people are still people even after they become Christians (it’s amazing how that happens), it’s easy to focus on personal and organizational shortcomings. If you keep that up, it can be all you focus on. Keep looking for flickers of light. Your job as a leader is to spot the hope in any situation anyway, to find a way when it looks like there’s no way. So keep looking.

4. You accept a harder heart as a new normal.

A hardened heart isn’t inevitable, but it does take intentional effort to guard against one. When you feel your heart becoming hard, you need to take action and fight against it. All that said, I’ve also discovered this: If you work at it, your heart can stay supple. When you pick away at the callous, something wonderful that God created still beats underneath. And you enter a new season of life wiser, but very much fully alive.