Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Know Thyself

Written by: on October 16, 2015

While it is true that a good leader will have a clear vision for the future, it is important to recognize that our past will inform our present as we move into the future. A leader does not just arrive onto the scene. A leader and each person with whom the leader works will function and respond based on their previous experiences. In his book The Leadership Mystique: Leading Behavior in the Human Enterprise, Manfred F R. Kets de Vries stresses the need to understand one’s emotional state and background in order to lead effectively.

We have all worked with leaders who seem emotional and irrational. I have worked with several leaders and followers who drove me crazy because of the way they made decisions and the way they interacted with people. Many of these people masked their insecurities by becoming aggressive and/or defensive. Some exude an over-competence while inwardly quaking in fear. Some become micro-managers. Some act like dictators. Whatever the case, I have found that knowing a person’s background goes a long way toward understanding a person’s personal “quirks”. Kets de Vries says, “If we can gather enough background and contextual information, even the most incomprehensible behavior makes sense.”[1] I remember working with a man who continually drove his staff members away because he was insecure and had to control everything. His staff was unable to fully use their gifts and develop their fields of ministry because they were constantly strapped with seemingly meaningless tasks. The more I got to know this leader, the more I began to understand his behavior. He grew up in London during the air raids of the Second World War and experienced constant fear and uncertainty. He later moved to South Africa and was sent off to boarding schools where he suffered at the hands of older boys with little adult supervision. In order to survive in a dangerous world in which he had little control, he learned to control what he could. This coping mechanism that helped him through childhood became an obstacle to his leadership. The more I knew of his past, the more I could appreciate him and see what an incredibly talented person he was.

Kets de Vries says we must get to know our own emotions, learn how to manage those emotions, and learn to recognize and deal with the emotions of others.[2] This path leads us to greater emotional intelligence and helps prepare us to lead effectively. Kets de Vries goes on to offer the four H’s of effective leadership; Hope, Humanity, Humility, and Humor.[3] Creating a sense of hope inspires others to follow. Humanity and humility help keep us real and authentic. They also help us appreciate others in a way that a prideful person never can. Humor gives us the ability to laugh at ourselves and create a healthy work environment. Any leader that embraces these four H’s, understands himself/herself, and can recognize and appreciate the emotional essence of others will be well on their way to providing healthy, effective leadership.


[1] Manfred F R. Kets de Vries, The Leadership Mystique: Leading Behavior in the Human Enterprise, 2nd ed. (Harlow, England: Prentice Hall/Financial Times, 2006), 10.

[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Ibid., 263.

About the Author

Brian Yost

Brian is a husband and father of three. He works with Free Methodist World Missions and is currently serving in Latin America.

10 responses to “Know Thyself”

  1. Dave Young says:

    Brian, Great post. Loved the story. It has me reflecting on what characteristics, or commitments I might subconsciously be bringing into my leadership from my past. Since the past claim on today can be subconscious I’m wondering what would you suggest to see the blindspot?

    • Brian Yost says:

      Great question. I find it much easier to objectively evaluate others than I do myself. I have, however, found that one way that helps me identify some of these areas in my own life is to compare myself with others. I know we are theoretically not supposed to compare ourselves with others, but we all do it to one degree or another. What I mean by comparing is simply acknowledging the things in others that bug us and asking God to give us insight into ourselves. The point is not to see how we measure up compared to someone else, but to use the things that we notice in others as a trigger for self-evaluation. When I am honest about this, God gives me better insight into others and helps me be more loving and patient. He also makes me aware of how my own actions effect others and helps me understand the reason I do what I do.

      • Mary Pandiani says:

        Appreciate these words, Brian: “The point is not to see how we measure up compared to someone else, but to use the things that we notice in others as a trigger for self-evaluation.” You make a good distinction of the mirror we can hold up when we are looking at another. We usually don’t have enough information to judge another, and for that matter, don’t always have enough information about ourselves (which probably is a God-given gift). But we can ask God for the ability to see what we need to see in ourselves.

  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Brian, While I loved most of Kets De Vries thoughts and writing I thought the “Four Happy “H”ops to effective leadership … H’s of effective leadership; Hope, Humanity, Humility, and Humor.[3] … were a little cheesy. For the depth of the rest of his content, that seemed a bit shallow. Maybe???

  3. Nick Martineau says:

    Brian, you started by saying, “it is important to recognize that our past will inform our present as we move into the future.” and then did a great job flushing that thought out with your stories. It’s amazing how much our past experiences impacts the way we treat one another and yet so little attention is given to understanding our past experiences. Thanks for using the stories to make that truth come alive.

  4. Travis Biglow says:

    Wow so compelling Brian, this is so true. Even now in my fiftys i am learing to cope with new emotions and new things i had never had to cope with before. It is such a task to really slow down and get a grip on your self. Hidden emotions are revealed in entirely different settings so i with you on understanding your past so that you can deal with the present!

  5. Dawnel Volzke says:


    I like that you captured and emphasized Kets de Vries’ point that the past does influence our personality and leadership style. I’ve observed so many good and bad leaders in different organizational contexts. From what I’ve seen, those leaders who know their self and seek to understand others can more effectively navigate the complexity of getting things done through group activity. All leaders should take on a continuous improvement mindset. To do this requires one reflect on their actions and effectiveness and make adjustments to improve their outcomes. To stay emotionally healthy we must take care of ourselves. If we live in a stressed emotional state, we can’t make good decisions, strategize effectively, or analyze situations through a healthy lens.

  6. Mary Pandiani says:

    So here’s my question about the leader who drove everyone away – yes, it was helpful to find out why he probably did what he did. But where is accountability in leadership? I ask because I struggled with a boss who could have been accused of the same thing as the man you speak of, but because I knew some of his past, I didn’t feel like I could judge him. Yet, in the long run, it ended up not only hurting me, but a number of others. Where do we go with that?

  7. Brian Yost says:

    I was in my twenties and he was in his fifties, so I did not feel I was in a position to address these issues with him, especially because he was not very open, did not respect the opinion of a young person, and was my boss.
    Some people tried to address these issues (often with little compassion and love), but these confrontations triggered his defense mechanisms toward withdrawal, isolation, self-preservation, and control. There was little/no accountability from the district leadership. He lasted only three years at the church before being voted out of the church. The district assigned him to another church. Within 3 years he took a vibrant church and ran it into the ground. He was finally removed/”retired”. The sad thing is that he had many fantastic skills and qualities, but his past hindered him in ways that were obvious to everyone but himself.

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