10 Symptoms of the Unaware Leader

clueless leader

A couple years ago there was a consistent problem in one of our areas of ministry. It was something which I would have quickly addressed, but no one brought it to my attention. Thankfully, I’ve learned the hard way that what I don’t know can often hurt my leadership or the church the most, so I’m good at asking questions and being observant. Through my normal pattern of discovery I encountered the problem, brought the right people together, we addressed the problem and moved forward.

End of story.

If only that was the end of the story every time. I’ve missed problems equally as much.

It reminds me — the leader is often the last to know when something is wrong. I have consistently told this to the teams I lead. You only know what you know.

And many times, because of the scope of responsibility of the leader, he or she isn’t privy to all the intricacies of the organization. Some people, simply because they would rather talk behind someone’s back than do the difficult thing of facing confrontation, tell others the problems they see before they share them with the leader. Without some systems of discovering problems the leader may be clueless there is even a problem.

Not knowing is never a good excuse to be unaware.

It’s not a contradiction in terms. I’m not trying to play with words. I’m trying to make an important leadership principle.

As a leader, you may not know all the facts — and you don’t need to know everything — will keep an organization very small and very controlled. I spend lots of energy on this blog denouncing that type leadership. But you should figure out how to be aware enough as a leader to discover the facts which you need to know.

Unaware leaders have some commonalities among them. (By the way, I’ve written this in a general sense for all organizations, but its equally true in the church context.)

Not certain if you are an aware leader?

Here are 10 symptoms of the unaware leader:

  • Not knowing the real health of a team or organization.
  • Clueless to what people are really saying.
  • Unsure of measurable items because they are never measured or monitored.
  • Not asking questions for fear of an unwanted answer.
  • Not dreaming into the future; becoming content with status quo.
  • Preferring not to know there was a problem than there is one.
  • Ignoring all criticism or dismissing all of it as negativity.
  • Not learning anything new, relying on same old ways to consistently work.
  • Making every decision without input from others.
  • Assuming everyone supports and loves your leadership.

Those are just some of the ways a leader remains unaware. There are possibly many others.

Some things the leader will never know. That’s okay.  There are issues within the life of an organization, however, that while the leader may not know readily, or even want to know, he or she should explore continually.

One of my rules of thumb in determining what I need to know and what I don’t. If it has the potential to impact the long-term health of the organization then I need to know about it. It could be a change we are about to make, a mistake we made, or just perceptions that people have within the organization. But, if I’m eventually going to hear about it anyway I want to hear about it as early in the process as possible.

Want to test your awareness?

Try this simple experiment. Send an email to a fairly sizable group of people you trust — key leaders, staff members, friends — people who know your organization fairly well. These could be from the inside or outside depending on the size of the organization. Make sure there are some people on the list who you know will be honest with you. In fact, tell them you want them to be. Tell them that you are trying to be more aware as a leader and need their help.

Pick some or all of these questions and ask people to respond to them:

What am I currently missing as a leader?
What do you see that I don’t see about our organization?
What should I be doing which I’m not doing — things if you were in my position you would be doing?
Do you think we are changing fast enough to keep up with the needs of the people we are serving?
What are people saying about me or our organization which I’m not hearing?
Would you say I am generally aware of the real problems in our organization?
Who on my team is keeping from me how they really feel?

If you really want to a challenge from this experiment, let them answer anonymously. You trust them, right? We set that in the parameters of who you asked to answer. Set up a Survey Monkey account and let them respond without having to add their name.

See what responses you receive.

Not ready to do that?

You could simply address the symptoms above and see how that improves your awareness as a leader. Whichever you choose.

What other symptoms are there of an unaware leader?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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22 thoughts on “10 Symptoms of the Unaware Leader

  1. Did you mean to say, “Underwear leaders have some commonalities among them” in your blog today? I love you!!

  2. Hey Ron, I love this post brother! Quick question. Let me start with background info to help you. In our organization the org chart is the lead pastor on top and all of us staff under him, so even though I am the associate pastor, he does not give me authority to oversee the staff. Also he is gone a lot for sermon prep from his home. So I get to see the dysfunctions of staff and personal frustration, because staff vent to me as their pastor/friend but trusting me that I would not tell the lead guy. Also, the lead guy uses all of us staff "against" one another when he goes to each one of us and asks us how is everyone else in the team doing. Kind of like spying on us, using each other. So we all feel like "Am I going to betray my fellow staff and tell the lead guys about their frustration, or am I going to be faithful to my pastor?" I suggested to the lead guy to put me in charge of staff, and in doing so I would gladly report everything to him because that would be my job, but until he makes that official I feel that would be "snitching" on them. Do you agree with my line of thought? If not, I need to hear it. and 2. How much the anonymous survey would put staff against one another and break trust that is so valuable in a healthy team dynamic? Thanks brother I reeeeally love your posts and learn a ton from it. Thanks for investing in pastors like me.

    • I'll take the second question first. That is for the senior leader only to see where the issues are he or she can see. It takes a brave leader to do that but it isn't intended to be used to pit people against one another. In something like this I would explain the why behind it — I'm trying to be a better leader — and explain that I'm not looking to be reprimanded, but to help me grow. I only know what I know.For the first one — it definitely sounds like a change is needed. I agree with your thought process though — until the senior leader buys into it I really don't think much will change or get better anyway. I'd be looking for his approval first.Thanks!Ron

  3. Ron,

    I think it is always a good idea for Christian leaders to take time to review their leadership styles. While some things about leadership never change, many methods of leadership need to put on 21st century skins that fit the audience.

    Thank you for a very timely article to point out that if we see any “slippage” that, perhaps, it may be time for some of us to update the “clothing” our leadership platform is wearing.

    Thanks and blessings,

    ~Zach
    Twitter: Twitter

  4. How approachable are they? Sometimes they are unaware because they aren’t open to feedback. A leader is only as good as their character. If they aren’t willing to stretch and grow, how do they expect their team/ organization to grow. Have they fostered an environment of honesty? The leader has to take the lead and sit down with his team and ask how safe is it for us to be honest with each other and how is the best way each of us to share things honestly with each other. IE one person likes people to be direct with them. Another needs a compliment or to hear they are doing something right before they get critism. This may sound like a weird one, but what are some of the unwritten rules of the organization. No one institutes them, but for every organization, they always end up being there. Ask them to write down 10 “unwritten rules” they find, with out having to sign it. Then can look at it and see if there are any wierd ones that hinder growth.

  5. Great article and it shows courage and humility to ask for and give feedback graciously (sometimes whilst biting one’s lip).

    The saying ‘Feedback is a gift that’s not always gift-wrapped’. Usually I find the intention behing the feedback of a positive nature.
    Twitter: cassykindly.co.uk

  6. — Believing that he alone is right and all others are wrong
    — Always good at hurting people surrounding him
    — Is interested in responding to any problem in diplomatic/ political style in oder to play safe and cover his position

  7. Lack of listening skills.

    LOVE the last 'symptom'…ha ha..'.Assuming everyone supports and loves your leadership.' A legend in their own mind!