6 Reasons Cynicism Develops in Leaders

Find yourself becoming a little more cynical every year as a leader?

Few of us decide we’re going to be cynical…we just kind of end up there.

How does that happen?

How does a heart grow hard? How do you end up trusting no one? How does hope die?

Cynicism grows in the hearts of far too many leaders. Not only does it impact how you lead at work or in ministry, eventually your growing cynicism will tear at the fabric of your marriage and even at your relationship with your kids. Nobody likes a cynic.

If you find yourself gradually growing more cynical, you’re not alone. I think leadership breeds cynicism for several reasons. The good news is you can beat it if you understand how it forms.

6 Reasons Leaders Grow Cynical

So why do leaders grow cynical? Here are 6 reasons I’ve seen in myself and in others:

1. You know too much

The more you lead, the more you know. And the more you know, the easier it is to grow cynical.

This shouldn’t surprise us at all. Solomon said it 3000 years ago. The wisest man in his day had to battle cynicism at a very deep level (ever read Ecclesiastes?). In Ecclesiastes 1:18 Solomon make the link between knowledge and sorrow crystal clear:

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

Boom. There it is.

Think of all you’ve seen as a leader. The heartbreak, the betrayals, the politics, the people you believed in who kept letting you down. You know too much. You’ve seen too much.

And not knowing how to handle what you’ve seen and what you know creates an incubator for cynicism.

2. You haven’t grieved your losses

Leadership is a series of wins and losses. If you’re like me, you hardly notice the wins, but you feel every loss.

Years ago, a mentor pointed out to me that most pastors never grieve their losses. Every time someone leaves your church, it’s a loss. Every time you do a funeral, it’s a loss. Every time you can’t do what you hoped you could do as a leader, it’s a loss.

Most of us just stuff the losses; pretending they don’t matter.

When I first realized I’d stuffed a lot of losses over my life, I cried. A lot. I mean like almost for a month kind of crying. That seemed to clear the backlog. Now, when I sense there’s a loss (even a small one), I grieve it before God.

There’s a reason people in Biblical times would declare 40 days of mourning. I used to read those passages and think “What’s wrong with those people? Why can’t they just go back to work?”

Actually, there’s something healthy about grieving your losses.

What do you need to grieve that you haven’t grieved?

3. You haven’t dealt with your issues

In addition to the losses you experience in life and leadership, we all bring baggage with us from the past.

I ran from dealing with my ‘stuff’ for years. After all, I was a good leader. I didn’t have any baggage. I sent people to counselling. I didn’t go to counselling.

How wrong that attitude was. Apparently, I did have baggage. And it was impacting not only my leadership, but my marriage and parenting. I’m so thankful I found some trained Christian counsellors to help me work through my issues.

If any of this is resonating with you, I want to encourage you to jump over to listen to Perry Noble and I tell our stories of burnout and depression in this post (and interview).

4. You’ve projected past failures onto new situations

When you don’t deal with your issues or grieve your losses, you end up projecting past failures onto new situations.

Here’s how cynicism operates.

  • Cynicism looks at a new team member and says “I’ll bet it’s just a matter of time until he screws up”.
  • Cynicism looks at a new class of 9th graders and says “They’re just like the kids who drove me nuts last year.”
  • Cynicism sees the newlyweds and says “I wonder how long until they hit the rocks?”
  • Cynicism sees the new church and decides “It will only be a matter of time until they implode too.”

If you want to fight cynicism, stop projecting past failures onto new situations.

5. You’ve decided to stop trusting

As soon as cynicism gets a toehold in your life, you stop trusting. Because the next person is just like the last person, you decide those kind of people can’t be trusted. Or worse, people can’t be trusted.

Really?

Is that how you want to live? What kind of leader does that make you? What kind of person does that make you?

Or, without inducing a guilt trip, what kind of Christ-follower does that make you (isn’t the heart of our faith forgiveness and hope)?

If you want to kick cynicism in the teeth, trust again. Believe again. Hope again.

6. You’ve lost your curiosity

I think an incredibly effective long term antidote to cynicism is curiosity.

The curious are never cynical. The curious are always interested, always open to new possibilities, always thinking, always hopeful. I wrote a post about the link between cynicism and how to become more curious here.

Because cynicism tends to creep up with age, you’ll notice there are (sadly) a lot of cynical old people. My favourite elderly people are never the cynical, but the curious. The ones who at 80 are still learning, still open, still hopeful, still passionate about the next generation, still optimistic.

When was the last time you were honestly curious about something? Pursue curiosity, and cynicism will die of a thousand pinpricks.

What Kills Cynicism in You?

If you’ve felt cynicism growing inside you, what’s making it grow? What’s helping you beat it?

Read more from Carey.

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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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Recent Comments
What happens when u dont have a meeting place any more. And u was forced out because the buliding wasnt available any more.
 
— Debra
 
If someone wants entertainment they're going to the wrong place. Church is not a place for entertainment...or in my opinion a barrage of coffee and donuts. Why are churches today bringing the world INTO them? Then there's the thing with children...age appropriate??? These little guys can pick stuff up in service. Besides Jesus said Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Mt. 19:14.
 
— Laurie
 
I love the intentionality here as well as the challenge to look at the data. That's missing so many times. I would like to offer a contrarian's take. Church members and regular attenders have so many ways to get information: Announcements, bulletins, social channels, relationships, and email being among the options. But brand new people are likely going to check out the website and that's it. It might be wiser for churches with limited time and resources to focus their website almost exclusively to guests. This group of people isn't looking for a calendar of events but wants to know about regular programs. They probably aren't interested in watching all of the messages but instead may want to preview one of the services. For the times we need church members to go to websites (sign up for camp, join a group, etc), we're probably better off designing and promoting a specific page rather than cluttering up the homepage.
 
— Michael Lukaszewski (@mlukaszewski)
 

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