“I am someone who goes to the gym,” I told myself as I self-consciously walked down the street in my neon orange shirt and too-new running shoes. I barely believed it, and there was a voice screaming in my head that I should just turn around and go home. That I would stand out, wouldn’t belong, had no business being there. But it was a healthy habit I’d decided to incorporate into my life. A habit that still gets me out the door, even on rainy nights when a cup of tea and a TV show sound much more appealing. But I’ve come to believe that the reason this habit didn’t fall by the wayside like so many other good intentions is due to one thing: Identity. You see, the words I was saying to myself changed how I thought about myself. I didn’t say, I want to go to the gym every day, or, I should try to go to the gym, or even, I hereby promise that I will go to the gym a minimum of three times a week. No, it wasn’t about what I would do (or aspire to do) but about who I was deciding to be.
What we say and believe about ourselves matters. And for that reason we shouldn’t be afraid to label ourselves. Normally we view labels as bad, but in this context I think they can be not only positive but also transformative. I’ve never met a vegan who was tempted to cheat on his diet. In fact, vegans wouldn’t consider it a diet: it’s just the way they eat.
I’ve heard this strategy at play with my friends as they teach their children too. Instead of saying, “No, don’t do that,” they might say something like, “We don’t do that at our house.” I’m not sure how effective it is, but I’d like to believe that it also teaches values rather than behavior modification. For good or ill, much of our identity forms at an early age. It seems like people can spend a whole lot of time and energy trying to figure out who they are, and trying to escape or embrace who they were raised to be. There are so many adages in popular culture that seem to confirm this: I sound just like my mother. Women tend to marry someone like their father. etc. There are so many things rooted in our identity that we didn’t choose. But there are things we can choose.
In the same vein, we should strive to remove negative self-talk from our lives. So often we talk about or to ourselves in ways we would never speak to a close friend. Now, I’m not trying to say we should live in a world of rainbows and daisies pretending we are perfect. But I think it’s important to remind ourselves of who we are. Ephesians 2 gives us a great example of that balance. Who are we? We are God’s workmanship. Adopting this identity doesn’t make us prideful, but inspires us to do God’s work in this world. I think reading these familiar words in the Message is helpful:
Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing. (Eph 2:7-10)
In his book, The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith suggests that identity is key in our struggle with sin. When we reframe our spiritual lives in terms of being a new creation, it empowers us with God’s strength to overcome. He writes, “The New Testament approaches the Christian life by telling us who we are and whose we are, and then it encourages us to live in a manner worthy of that identity.” The Bible is full of declaration of who we are in God: adopted as children, highly favored, beloved, but until we believe these things, until we use them to name ourselves, I think we will struggle over and over.
It’s not a matter of saint vs. sinner. In a world of false dichotomies, we could feel like if we don’t fit clearly into one category, we must be the opposite. Someone might be hesitant to call herself a leader because she experiences self-doubt, has a hard time voicing opinions strongly, or is indecisive. However, she might be the exact person needed to lead in a specific group or situation. What if she chose to label herself as a leader? Maybe choosing to say those words – I am a leader – would spur her to take responsibility, develop leadership qualities, or find a way to lead by example, even if that doesn’t look like the kind of leadership taught in seminars.
A simple exercise to try is to give yourself 5 minutes to write out every word that comes to mind when you think about how you define yourself. Then you can rank those things by what percentage of you they make up. It can be very eye-opening to see what kinds of negative and positive things come to mind, and a valuable reality check to see that things we so often get hung up on are such a very small part of things that truly define us. There might also be things on the list that it’s time to reject. You can symbolically start to do this by crossing it off. My list includes some titles given by birth: sister, daughter, given by others: teacher, foreigner, and some that I’m still aspiring to: writer, leader, peacemaker, and yes, “person who goes to the gym” is on my list, just under worshiper and adventurer.
Charlotte is on the Editorial team at boldcupofcoffee.com and currently works with a non-profit organization in Taiwan where she teaches, leads English Bible studies, writes educational materials, trains teachers, poses for pictures, and a bunch of other stuff too. She is originally from Canada, spending significant amounts of time in all three westernmost provinces and the idea of home has become quite fluid. She has learned that life overseas is not as exotic as people may think, but life with God is a daily adventure. Read more article by Charlotte.
In a previous article, I talked about the importance of learning how to give yourself a break. The basic gist of it was that we all have limitations, and when we bump up against our limitation of energy, focus, and time, the healthiest option is to choose to take a break and rest instead of crashing into a place of burnout or breakdown.
This time I want to talk specifically to people who are employers and team leaders; those of us who work with teams of people who work or serve under our leadership, whether that is in a non-profit, business, or government sectors.
Let’s start by asking this question of ourselves: Do you know when the last time your staff or volunteers took a break? If you can answer this question without a lot of thought, then you’re probably already on the right track. But if it’s hard for you to think of the last time each member of your team took a break, or did something to recharge themselves, then that can be a warning sign that your team might be reaching a breaking point.
As countless leadership articles, summits, and conferences will tell you; organizational health needs to be on the mind of us who are leading. If you start to see that your team is nearing a breaking point, or if your organization’s health is in decline and dropping, then you already know that this means your ability to reach the goals and vision is severely hampered.
So take a moment and ask this question: What is the health of the team I am leading? I don’t mean if you’ve hit your quarterly goals or if your financial statements are showing a positive at the bottom, I’m talking specifically about the health of your team members. Maybe it helps to break the question down further: How is the physical health of your team? What level of stress and anxiety are they carrying on a regular basis? How are they doing as a person, not just how they are performing as an employee or a volunteer?
These questions are important because they reveal the parts of your organizational health that can’t be quantified by numbers or data. They reveal the intangible parts of your team that shapes whether your organization is in a place of health or needs an injection of time and effort to regain a healthy status.
When there needs to be an improvement of health, remember that the culture and ethos of how an organization reaches a place of health flows from the top and moves downwards. There is the rare instance where an organization can be changed and shifted as a grassroots movement from the bottom up, but this is not the norm and changes that come this way tend to get squashed before they make a lasting impact. This means that when it comes to your team members learning to become healthy and take breaks when necessary, then it’s up to you as a leader to model what this looks like and set the pace for how this will happen. The added benefit for this is that it also addresses the simple truth that an organization’s health will never surpass the health of the primary leadership. If you’re incapable of taking a break to rest and recharge, you are telling everyone else that they’re not allowed to take a break either. I don’t think I need to go into what this means for retaining good team members and helping them reach their potential, but the simple answer is they won’t stay, and they won’t reach what they are capable of.
Maybe you’re reading this and you’ve realized that you aren’t able to come up with the answers about where your organizational health is at right now. If that’s the case, then there’s a few steps you can take to train yourself how to look for the warning signs in your team members.
The first step is to pay more attention to the emotions of your team members. I don’t mean sending random emails asking them to rate their stress or happiness levels on a scale of 1 to 10, I mean take the time to get to know your team members enough that when circumstances change or something is happening to upset them you will be able to recognize when they are down, when they are frustrated, and also when they are happy. Often your team members already know when they need a break, but they might feel a sense of duty or obligation that prevents them from taking a necessary break. When you encounter this, remember that your role as a leader is to both model how to take breaks, and to give permission for your team members to do this.
The second step is to recognize the seasons or circumstances that push people toward burnout in your organization. Every organization has some sort of normal ebb and flow to the year where there are busy seasons and slower seasons. For example; in the church realm these busy seasons tend to be the months leading up to Christmas, Easter, September launches, and whenever you have your annual meeting. When you know that these busier seasons are coming up, try suggesting to your team members that they take some vacation or banked up hours pre-emptively to recharge before the busy season hits. Don’t forget that time off after these critical times is just as important for the overall health of the organization.
Lastly, I want to take a quick moment to talk about the team member who always seems to be in a state of perpetual crisis and burnout. This is the person who will constantly be in a state of anxiety around their role no matter how often they take a break, change their responsibilities, or alter their work environment. They might even be someone who appears just as—or even more—stressed after their break than they were before it. When this is the case, a starting point can be to talk about what they do during their breaks. Maybe they need to rest and recharge themselves in other ways than what they are currently doing. Chances are this won’t be a situation that gets solved in one conversation, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. The potential benefits of helping a team member go from critically stressed to a positive and productive part of the organization are too high to pass on easily. (If you don’t know where to start in having a conversation like this with a team member, I recommend checking out the book Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzer.)
Learning how to lead a team well means learning how to advocate and motivate your team towards a place of organizational health. This isn’t something that will just happen on its own, and if it’s neglected for too long it takes exponentially more effort to regain a place of health. Are you up to the task of modeling, promoting, and advocating for the health of the whole team? My advice is to start on this as soon as you can.
What’s your experience with this as a team leader? Do you have further insights about how to help your team take the necessary breaks and build rest into the regular routine? If you do, join in the conversation and post a comment below.
Brian's whole understanding of faith and Christianity changed when he started to encounter what it means to live life with God instead of for God. One thing that Brian is passionate about is walking with people as they explore their faith in Christ and learning how to honestly seek God in the midst of our doubts and fears. Brian is the Pastor of Grand Valley Community Church in Brandon Manitoba. He is married to Nikki and they have one daughter named Olivia. When Brian isn't working on a sermon at a Starbucks or at home with his family, you can usually find him fly fishing or building model air planes. To read more of Brian's articles, click here.
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