One of the hardest lessons I learned in ministry was a truth echoed throughout the book The Leadership Mystique: Leading Behavior in the Human Enterprise by Manfred Kets De Vries: “All human behavior, no matter how irrational it appears, has a rationale.”[i] As a campus minister for 23 years, I had privilege of working with young people at a time when they were just figuring out life, having to make major career decisions and entering into serious—and potentially–life long relationships.itisexam
It was a time when “issues” became front and center, and I was there to experience their perfect storms. I also had the “privilege” to work with their collateral damage. I learned from these experiences about the powerful effects of early life traumas, family dysfunctions, and irrational behavior had on the lives of college students and their (in)ability to create healthy relationships. The lessons I learned being a leader for young people resonated throughout this book.
De Vries’ book on leadership is based a clinical paradigm that rests “on the following three premises: 1 What you see isn’t necessarily what you get. 2 All human behavior, no matter how irrational it appears, has a rationale. 3. We’re all products of our past. The meta-force that underpins these three premises is the vast unconscious. A considerable part of our motivation and behavior takes place outside conscious awareness.”[ii]
Put another way, most people have no idea why they act the way do. If we begin there, we can begin to peal away the layers to get to why people act the way they do. It begins by remember that (1) what we see is rarely what we get. This I found true over and over again as each new wave of college students came my way. The most outgoing and vivacious individual were more often than not covering up weak and wounded personalities. The smartest and most confident looking individual was the least confident, usually experiencing a deep of sense of failure and self-hatred. These young people had learned to cope by acting in ways the deflected people from seeing their true selves.
When you understand that people are covering (often unconsciously) their hurting true selves, their irrational behavior begins to make sense. This explained why those who constantly irritated their friends by correcting them and pointing out their failings, sabotaging every meaningful relationship, all because they thought that by showing their intelligence they would impress and win people. Showing their “know-how” was the only relational tool they knew, in spite of the fact that it never really worked. Or the student who genuinely wanted to be loved and find a soul mate, always fell for the least kind and uncommitted individual. And she would be hurt and disappointed again, and again. These irrational behaviors can also be understood as the result of the final truth (3) – we are all products of our past. “All of us are nothing more than a developmental outcome of our early (and later) environment modification by our genetic endowment. And because of the heavy imprinting that takes place at earlier stages of life, we tend to repeat certain behavior patterns.”[iii] Our conception of how we impress others and gain a person’s love (by perfectionism or submission), or why we are so hungry for love and acceptance, all has its roots in our past, a past that is often unexamined.
These three premises helped me to understand the irrational and dysfunctional behavior of so many young people that came through my door. More importantly, these insights elicited in me compassion (where for most, it brought created only friction, irritation and avoidance). I realized that most of these troubled teens were being ruled by unconscious processes based on their past that they had no awareness. This helped me develop a quality of leadership early in my ministry that DeVries calls interpersonal intelligence. “People with interpersonal intelligence are able to empathize with others, understand how somebody else feels, get along well with other people, and get things done with and through others.”[iv] As has been mentioned in recent posts, the failure church leaders today to listen has had extremely detrimental effects on the health and direction of so many churches. De Vries suggest emotional intelligence as a helpful way forward for leaders, by requiring leaders to see beyond the facades, the irritating habits and turmoil that our people cause us and cause leaders to avoid and disengage.
But, that is only half of the story. The harder lesson I had to learn was to deal the with the plank in my own eye. “We (leaders) have to reconcile the inner forces that test us, that tempt us. The challenge we all have is to understand these forces. For leaders, that challenge is especially critical.”[v] Working with these challenging young people, I realized that I was not immune to my past and its influences, which explained my own irrational behaviors (yes, hard to believe that I would ever act irrationally!). I had to confront masks that I often put on to impress and distract people (even if I believed that I was merely trying to be “like Christ”). In order to lead, I too had to deal with my own inner forces. I had to admit, like the Apostle Paul, that often the things I did were not the things I wanted to do.
As good leaders in ministry, I believe it is vital that we confront the fact that we are still ruled by our inner forces that we have only begun to grasp. As Paul states:
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12).
Even though our lives are given completely to Christ, these forces are there and influence our leadership practices and ultimately our relationships. How we seek to understand and receive God’s help to manage these forces, will influence how we function as leaders: whether we are demanding, harsh and unforgiving, or weather we practice patience, empathy and love with those who more often irritate us, stretch us and act just like me!
[i] Manfred Kets De Vries, The Leadership Mystique: Leading Behavior in the Human Enterprise (Harlow, UL: Prentice Hall, 2006), 8.
[iii] Ibid., 17.
[iv] Ibid., 21.
[v] Ibid., 38.