Leaders Know Themselves


Lovett H. Weems, Jr., discusses the importance of leaders having a mature, self-aware understanding of themselves. He writes that in order to achieve a healthy and accurate knowledge of one’s self, a leader must reach out to actively seek feedback, and then withdraw to reflect on that feedback and use it in self-examination.

Leaders can err in two directions. Many begin with themselves as if “I am the beginning point of leadership,” to the exclusion of the group and the mission. These leaders are preoccupied with “my values, my ideas, my style.” However, some leaders go to the other extreme and seem utterly out of touch with themselves.

People have a right to expect of their leaders a maturity that comes from healthy self-knowledge.

Those who become the most effective leaders are persons who understand themselves and accept themselves. They do not operate out of myths about themselves. Nor are they constantly working out their unrealistic self-images on others. Much of their freedom and power comes from this self-knowledge. People have a right to expect of their leaders a maturity that comes from healthy self-knowledge.

Michael Cavanaugh puts it this way: A violin is a musical instrument that is both sensitive and strong. It is sensitive in that it is affected by the slightest touch, and it is strong because its strings can withstand a good deal of pressure. A violin must be continually and properly tuned to be played well, for if it is not, even the finest violinist cannot call forth beautiful music from it … When ministers are in tune with themselves, they can touch people in beautiful ways, but when they are out of tune with themselves, not even the Lord can make music with them. (Leading the Congregation, Shawchuck and Heuser, Abingdon, 27)

Two Movements toward Self-Knowledge

Leaders need both self-confidence and an awareness of limitations. Most people believe they know themselves; yet many expend a great deal of energy protecting inaccurate self-images. The solution for this dilemma is both simple and difficult: seek feedback from others, reflect on what you are doing, and learn from mistakes.

At least two “movements” are needed as one seeks self-knowledge: reaching out and withdrawing. First, one must reach out and actively seek feedback. This is often difficult for clergy, many of whom function as the proverbial “lone ranger.” Some are in isolated settings, physically separated from colleagues. Others may be isolated by a reticence to confide in others.

Second, one must withdraw to reflect on feedback and use it in self-examination. John Wesley modeled self-examination as a continuing practice essential for the religious leader. In his early years, he set aside time in every day for the “examination.” Later, he began setting aside each Saturday for self-examination. Finally, in his later years, he developed the habit and inner clock to pause for the first five minutes of each hour to examine the hour past. John Calvin long ago described the need for such self-examination when he says that “without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God … [and] without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.” (Shawchuck and Heuser, 37)

Self-Knowledge in the Service of Leadership

Self-knowledge helps the leader and those whom the leader serves. Robert Greenleaf writes: “Pacing oneself by appropriate withdrawal is one of the best approaches to making optimal use of one’s resources. The servant-as-leader must constantly ask: ‘How can I use myself to serve best?’” (Servant Leadership, Paulist, 9)

Leaders constantly experience people relating to them in seemingly strange ways because of their leadership role. Edwin Friedman talks about the need for leaders to practice self-differentiation — staying connected with those being served and staying separate enough not to be “swallowed up.” Self-knowledge is essential for such self-differentiation.

An Example of Self-Knowledge

A critical dimension of self-knowledge for leaders is to keep things in perspective and not let success go to your head. While a student in New York City, psychiatrist Robert Coles went to see Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen. He writes of finding Day seated at a table with another woman: I found myself increasingly confused by what seemed to be an interminable, essentially absurd exchange taking place between the two middle-aged women. When would it end — the alcoholic ranting and the silent nodding, occasionally interrupted by a brief question, which only served, maddeningly, to wind up the already over talkative one rather than wind her down? Finally, silence fell upon the room. Dorothy Day asked the woman if she would mind an interruption. She got up and came over to me. She said, “Are you waiting to talk with one of us?“ One of us: with those three words she had cut through layers of self-importance, a lifetime of bourgeois privilege, and … told me … what she herself was like. (Dorothy Day, Addison-Wesley, XVIII)

Composing a Life

Mary Catherine Bateson has written about the task each of us has to compose a life. As one grows in knowledge of self and is in tune with oneself, the composing of a life has the character of faithfulness and congruence. Those who are called to be leaders dare not do less.

Related Resources


About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

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