5 Guidelines to Help You Lead When You Find Yourself In Over Your Head

Here’s a leadership secret.

Almost anyone who has ever led anything significant has felt like they’re in over their head at one point or another.

You might be there right now.

I hear from young leaders all the time or leaders who have moved into new roles who tell me they’re overwhelmed by the responsibility of leadership. One young leader put it this way:

I’m basically…new to all of this and feeling completely over my head. Knowing I am called to be here and not knowing how any of this is going to work, [the] leadership issue for me is feeling so very very insecure on so many levels.

I get that. I’ve felt like I’ve been in over my head many times.

  • From my teens right through my thirties, I was often the youngest leader around a lot of leadership tables and had to learn how to lead with people much older and often much wiser than me.
  • I was in law before ministry. First year law school was overwhelming for a liberal arts major, but I found a way through.
  • I really never saw myself as a pastor, and had to figure out how to lead a church in real time when I got called into ministry.
  • I really had no idea how to write a book. I’ve now been able to publish three, including my latest, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversation That Will Help Your Church Grow.
  • I had no idea how to launch a book (apparently books don’t launch themselves), but learned on the fly and saw my latest book become a #1 Amazon best-seller in multiple categories.

Whether you’re trying to launch something new, moving into a new and overwhelming role, or just being the young leader around a seasoned table, everyone gets overwhelmed.

So…how do you lead when you’re in over your head?

What follows are 5 guidelines that have helped me.

1. Stay humble

Humility is a leader’s best friend.

It’s one thing to be in over your head but pretend you’ve got it all figured out. Your insecurity will drive you to pretend you know something. Don’t. It’s such a bad strategy; the quickest way to alienate the people around you is to pretend you know what you’re doing when you don’t. People will lose confidence in you quickly and begin to dismiss you as arrogant.

On the other hand, don’t repeatedly throw yourself under the bus either saying things like “I’m no good at this” or “I have no idea what I’m doing.” That’s not true humility. That’s a lack of confidence.

Instead, just be truthful and express a humble confidence in the long term outcome. Say things like “This is new to me, but I’m sure we can figure this out together.”

Or “The learning curve is steep right now, and I’m grateful for a good team around me. We’ll get this done somehow.”

Sometimes when you’re really shaky, any confidence you’re expressing is in God, not in yourself. I realize that’s good theology in every season, but sometimes the only confidence you will have is in God. That’s more than okay.

2. Get a great team of people around you who are smarter than you 

You really can’t do this alone.

The more alone you are, the more difficult it will be.

So…get some mentors to build into you. If no one’s offering (they rarely do), just ask. Recruit the next and brightest leaders you can find and mobilize them.  Here are 5 tips on how to attract and lead leaders who are better than you.

3. Become an avid learner 

Just because you don’t know something now doesn’t mean you can’t ever know it.

Become an avid learner. Get up early. Read everything you can. Take notes from everyone around you. Live and lead in active learning mode.

You need a steep growth curve in this stage. Make sure you spend time every day learning and growing.

And don’t spend so many hours working in leadership that you can’t work on your leadership.

4. Grow comfortable saying “I don’t know”

Insecurities run deep in most of us. And often our fear is that when people realize how little we know they will reject us.

But when you tell them you don’t know, two things happen. First, they’re glad you realize what they already know—that you don’t know. Second, they probably like you a little bit more because your admission you don’t know makes you more relatable, more human.

Don’t rest at “I don’t know” though. Tell them you’ll find out and report back. But at least admit it. Don’t bluff.

5. Trust God 

Yes, I know this sounds a little cliche. But it’s so true.

Many of us experienced a specific calling into ministry. If so, you need to trust God to get you through it.

In the absence of a clear calling (as I outline here, not everyone receives a ‘call to ministry’ in the transition sense), if you are serving in the area of your gifting and passion, long term things almost always get better. Sometimes you just need to trust the Giver, not the gifts.

The tension in leadership is you will be tempted to trust the gifts more than you trust the Giver. You’ll so badly want the gifts that you don’t have or that are underdeveloped that you’ll grasp at them unwisely. Or when you develop a skill and become great at something, you’ll forget the Giver and place all your confidence in the gift. Both are mistakes.

Great leaders always trust the Giver more than they trust the gifts.

If the gifts you need aren’t developed yet to the point they need to be, just keep working. Be diligent. Don’t give up. Trust that the God who got you into this will get you through it. Naturally, sometimes we’re in over our heads because we’re doing something we’re not gifted for, called to or equipped to handle. That’s a whole different subject.

But most of the time, we just need to persevere a little longer.

What Are You Learning?

What have you learned about leading when you’re in over your head?

> Read more from Carey.


 Are you finding yourself in over your head more and more? Learn how a leadership pipeline process can help keep your head above water. Connect with an Auxano Navigator and start a conversation with our team.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is lead pastor of Connexus Community Church and author of the best selling books, Leading Change Without Losing It and Parenting Beyond Your Capacity. Carey speaks to North American and global church leaders about change, leadership, and parenting.

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