The Dangers of a Plateauing Leader

By Cath Tallack

I am in the business of developing leaders; both my paid work and volunteer ministry is almost entirely linked to developing Christian leaders in the Church and Para-Church all over Australia. Why? Aside from feeling a real call from God to do this work, everywhere I look I see leaders in their 30’s plateauing.

How does this play out? Well first, at a young age—maybe as a high-schooler or early young adult—someone taps you on the shoulder and says, “you’ve got potential”. Then, you start to be given opportunities to lead, communicate and try out some gifts and talents you and those around you see in you. Next, you find your niche, the things that you are really good at. After a while, you realise that in service opportunities and confusing situations you often, even naturally, take the lead. You’ve learnt that you have a gift to communicate a simple message and engage those listening to you. You find that you excel in the decision-making part of meetings and have a real love for those around you—you are flourishing and thanks to that little tap on the shoulder you have really found your groove in leadership and you’re doing well.  … Sound familiar?

What happens next and how you handle it can be the difference between you continuing to develop, to become all that God has called and created you to be, or plateauing in your leadership—losing effectiveness, passion and growth.

You’re really enjoying what you’re doing and people start to compliment you on how great you are. Maybe you’re a star communicator and every time you finish someone lavishes you with praise. Isn’t it so nice to hear that encouragement after you’ve poured your heart and soul into your work? 

But what leaders can be tempted to decide at this point is believe “I’ve arrived … I’m good enough”; no reason to keep learning, understanding, growing or developing. You become like that pastor who put that sermon that was the best thing they’d ever done in their back pocket and travel it around church to church, conference to conference and hear those magic words “you’re such a great preacher” in as many different places as they can.[1]

This is a classic plateaued leader and according to Dr Robert Clinton’s research[2] this is why the majority of leaders step out of service, both voluntary and vocationally—they stop developing.

Plateaued leaders become content with their current capacity and ministry, without discerning their need to grow and develop further. They become comfortable and fail to realise they have ceased to flourish.

And a leader, who is not growing, is actually in decline.

Ask yourself if these could be true for you:

  • Weary of ministry / work and prolonged feeling of being worn out?
  • Declining initiative toward new assignments and challenges?
  • Decreased vision for the future?
  • Desire to maintain, not press for new opportunities?
  • Lack of enthusiasm for recruiting and challenging future leaders?
  • Reduced dependence upon the Lord and Spirit—empowering that once characterised your life?

Answering ‘YES’ could be a sign that your leadership has reached a plateau.

If you find yourself in an unhealthy plateau, what should you pursue to reignite your leadership? First of all, take ownership and resist the urge to excuse or shift and then think about what your next step in developing your leadership might be.

Here are some basic ideas on how to develop as a leader.

1. Read

There are literally thousands of books written on leadership. If you’ve never read a book on leadership start with Integrityby Dr Henry Cloud, Leading Out of Who You Areby Simon P Walker, or The Leadership Challengeby James Kouzes and Barry Posner. There are also endless blogs and podcasts to get involved with.[3]

2. Get a Coach

Old school leadership development thinking says “find out what you’re bad at and work on that until you’re sort of good at it”. I disagree. Instead, I think find out what you’re great at, what God has gifted you in, and work on that until the day you die. One of the best ways to do that is to get a coach who specifically gives you feedback and talks you through how to keep getting better and better.

3. Go to Leadership Conferences

This is a bit of no brainer but go with a posture of learning—don’t go to anything where you think you’re not going to learn, grow or develop; take a posture of learning and soak up whatever you can. Conferences and learning environments also give you a unique opportunity to learn from others, from different tribes and places and opinions; mixing with other leaders who are also on the journey of development is a great source for your own posture of learning.

(Side note: I think there is a great conference coming up in August— http://neoleader.co/neoleader-conference-2019/!)

4. Personal Renewal

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the life of a growing leader is marked by times of personal revival, faith stretching experiences from God and renewed vision. These times may come unexpectedly and sovereignly from the Lord. These times are also to be looked for and pursued. However and wherever you connect with God—go there often.

The word plateauing provokes an image of staying the same, but in reality, plateauing leaders are really in decline and at huge risk of stepping out of whole-life service and the call of God on their life—this is what gets me out of bed in the morning and motivates me to be passionate and excited to develop leaders in this country and to develop myself as a leader.

I believe God has placed a call on my life to lead. I also believe I will die trying to be the leader that God has called me to be. But, I wake up every day with a posture of learning and development, striving to be all God has created to me to be. How about you?

[1]See Skye Jethani, Immeasurable: Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2017).

[2]Robert Clinton, The Making of a Leader: Recognizing the Lessons and Stages of Leadership Development, 2d ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing Group, 2018).

[3]Editor’s comment: For a good read on leadership that responds to the signs of the times, see Mark Sayers and Jon Tyson, Facing Leviathan: Leadership, Influence, and Creating in a Cultural Storm (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014). Mark Sayers and John Mark Comer’s podcast, This Cultural Moment, is also helpful.