Endurance: Taking Care of Yourself as a Leader
By Alan Sears
Replying to NLI Staff, "Stewardship: Protecting Your Faith-Based Organization Through a Crisis"
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Hebrews 12:1-2
When your organization is thrown into crisis mode, you might find yourself pulled in endless directions as you try to put out fires before they spread. This style of leadership will quickly sap your energy physically, mentally, and spiritually. For this reason, it’s important you build and improve your endurance as a leader. Without endurance you’ll only be equipped for short sprints when the challenge might require a marathon of crisis management.
As the CEO, President, and General Counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) for nearly 25 years—and after earlier years of leadership in law firms, ministries, and government—the demands of my career took a toll on me physically. I wish I had learned earlier in my working life that taking care of others was only possible if I also took care of myself. While this was difficult to do with constant demands on my time, I eventually learned that proactive leadership required endurance.
Below are six points of advice to help you build and maintain your endurance so you can finish the race God has set before you.
1) Your Health is Your Wealth
The healthier you are, the more energy you can spend towards achieving your mission. This naturally requires what you probably already know: eating right, sleeping well, and physical exercise. What’s key to all this is routine and consistency.
As someone who drove thousands of miles across the country and flew millions of miles across the globe (often more than 200 days annually), travel proved to be a significant obstacle in maintaining a routine. Nevertheless, it’s important to try and carve out the necessary time so that your body can eventually adjust. If you’re eating, sleeping, and exercising inconsistently and sporadically, so too will be your energy when you might need it most.
If you don’t have a personal physician and regular check-ups, find one and do so – I would not be writing this to you without my doctor’s wisdom and intervention. She diagnosed my stage four cancer when others passed off my problems as something else. You’ll be surprised at your ability to make time for your health when doing so becomes the proper priority.
2) Maintain your Margin
“Margin” is the word every guru and consultant will tell you that you need. It’s not just a catchphrase, it’s a career saver. It means creating time and space for yourself as a high priority so that your actions are not simply reactions.
As the CEO or Executive Director of an organization, you probably never had much time to yourself to begin with, but ironically enough, time alone to decompress, process, and think can prove most effective when your team encounters a crisis. In times of challenge it is more important than ever.
Building “executive time” into your calendar every day can help you maintain your margin and prove to be a valuable return on investment when a crisis emerges. At about the halfway mark of my twenty-four years as CEO of a multi-million-dollar nonprofit, I realized that a Friday free of ANY appointments enabled me to accomplish more in the preceding four days than I previously had in five days thereafter.
I also found that assigning “e-mail to review” to designated times each day was an incredible time-saver. And don’t worry, if your offices are on fire someone will find you without you having to constantly monitor your email inbox.
3) Separate the Wheat from the Chaff
During a crisis or a challenging time, you will need to process what feels like an endless flow of information. As the steward of your organization, it is your responsibility to separate fact from fiction, relevant from irrelevant, urgent from non-urgent. In other words—you must figure out what matters.
Without doing so, you cannot make prudent decisions that might prevent your organization from total disaster, and you will waste endless hours. And focusing on priorities is also what delegation is all about.
For an example of time absorbers—those opposed to your faith-based mission might try and use a crisis as an opportunity to launch assaults against the reputation of you or your team members. You cannot let such background noise consume you and distract you from your mission. There might be times where certain allegations or false claims must be responded to swiftly and assertively, but not every time. Don’t give platforms to those intentionally trying to distract you when you don’t need to.
4) Focus on your Prayer Life
When choosing ADF’s theme verse, we settled on John 15:5: “...for without Christ you can do nothing.” When sharing this verse, I often parcel out “nothing” to “NO-thing.” The reason for doing so is to emphasize that without trust in God, and His blessing, your ministry cannot accomplish a single thing (certainly nothing of eternal consequence). This holds true in both the good times and the bad times.
An active prayer life will help you keep this in perspective. Make sure you begin and end each day in prayer, offering up both your gratitude and worries to God.
Your prayer life should also include your team members. Be sure to begin meetings in prayer and to support the prayer life of your staff. At ADF we said, “we pay you to pray,” and every team member was expected to do just that.
5) One Decision at a Time
Decide what you will accomplish in each phase - whether a day or a week and then do it. Severely limit your focus to the biggest issue of the moment.
On countless occasions I have watched CEOs and other leaders frozen by an impossible, usually self-imposed burden. This usually involves the creation of artificial deadlines, priorities, and pronouncements that box them into doing too many things at once, and making decisions they have no business making at that moment.
When we experience serious overload, we make poor judgments, proving, “All mankind is stupid, devoid of knowledge.” Jeremiah 51:17a.
For example, in a turnaround crisis, my friend Bobb Biehl suggests, “hire one, fire one, and shoot a ‘sacred cow.’” Instead, how many times have we seen paralysis of analysis set in?
Instead of determining who is the least productive, consider doing the following:
- “Red light” team members dragging others down and assist them in seeking opportunities elsewhere.
- Terminate the least productive programs with limited ROI. You can’t have an executive meandering over a dozen minor issues that others could handle and might be irrelevant a month from now.
6) Taking Responsibility
“The buck stops here,” is a phrase that was popularized by President Harry S. Truman after he was gifted a nameplate with the engraved phrase. The nameplate sat on his desk in the Oval Office and served as a reminder that all final decisions at a certain level were made by the President, and that the President is ultimately responsible for those decisions.
With that said, it’s important to understand that this does not mean “everything is ultimately my fault,” or that “every decision is ultimately mine to make,” as we note above. Approaching your leadership style like this will turn you into a micromanager without strategic foresight.
And know that even with the brightest, most competent people, mistakes are made and remember a mistake is different than a moral failure.
If something does go awry and it is truly “not your fault,” do not blame others. Rather, manage the situation and remember that the Lord told us to cast our burdens upon Him, and He meant it. When we try to take on what is His to handle, we will be overwhelmed and confused. And sometimes as a leader we must absorb some foul blows on behalf of our team, that’s what we are called to do.
I hope these insights prove helpful to you as you learn how to manage your time more effectively. Servant leadership is the best kind of leadership for faith-based nonprofit work, but you cannot be a leader if you stretch yourself too thin too early. Treat your calling and work as a marathon and pace yourself accordingly, and remember, your team will look to you on how to respond to a crisis.
As Kipling reminds us, “if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs,” you and your team will emerge head and shoulders above the fray.
Alan E. Sears, Founder of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and Board Member of Napa Legal Institute (NLI). Mr. Sears is also Founder, Executive Director, and Senior Counselor for Kingdom Alliance Builders, a not-for-profit corporation providing non-legal consultation and business strategies to leaders of ministries, apostolates, and other faith-based entities.