DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Emotional Intelligence: My On the Job Training

Written by: on October 23, 2014

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.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., 17.

[iv] Ibid., 21.

[v] Ibid., 38.

About the Author


John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

6 responses to “Emotional Intelligence: My On the Job Training”

  1. mm Clint Baldwin says:

    Thanks, John.
    What a journey working with/for/alongside others (and our own self for that matter) turns out to be…oy vey!
    How you have navigated your way through the process is profound and encouraging.
    I too appreciated, but with a bit of critique, Kent de Vries quote that, “All of us are nothing more than a developmental outcome of our early (and later) environment modification by our genetic endowment.” His use of the term ‘nothing’ seems to me to contradict his earlier statements about the three forms of leadership and his assessment that he believes leadership makes a difference. That is, the above statement seems disturbingly deterministic to me and doesn’t seem to gel well with the rest of his writing.
    However, while believing we do have choice and it does make a difference (that we are more than just the sum of our parts), I do also agree that choices (some peoples more so than others) are at times far more constrained than we like to conjecture based for instance on some of the aspects/characteristics Kent de Vries engages.
    Anyhow, once again we return to seeing another reason for the importance of knowing peoples stories.

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Clint, thanks for your (as always) insightful thoughts. You do bring up a challenging question about balancing determinism and choice….a discussion that has been in the process for several thousand year. I am beginning to think that the real issue is not so much that we are determined by our past, but we often choose to allow the past, environment, society and community to dictate our lives because we choose not to examine why we do what we do! Does that make sense? I am thinking more these days that the problem for most people is the “unexamined life” – that we assume what we do or how we react to being either my choice or “just the way that I am” – and allow our lives to be ruled rather than lived. I think that is where De Vries is helpful, because he challenges us to not assume but instead to examine the many influences that often dictate our choices and begin to make real choices in life. Thanks as always for challenging my thinking!

  2. John…
    You demonstrate what an agile and flexible leader looks like — invested in those you minister to, attentive to what is present in your own life. Reading back through your post, I wonder if there is any correlation between being products of our past (and your illustration of the young woman settling in a relationship that is ultimately unfulfilling) and what is developing among those that age that leave the church? I know that might be a stretch, but I wonder if we have somehow done the same thing in a much broader sense in the Christian life. Rather than just affirm what I wonder, I realize (thanks to your good work and the work of others) that I need to pay attention, listen, see the different vantage points and hold up the mirror.

    Thanks John!

  3. mm John Woodward says:

    Carol, I think you are on to something here. I can’t help but think that our society’s lack of commitment and loyalty to church might just reflect our lack of commitment and loyalty in the family. I read recently a book called, “How The West Really Lost God” by Mary Eberstadt, who suggested that growing divorce rates and family dysfunctions contributed to the decline in church attendance and Christian influence in society. She found that healthy and attached families more often “do church” — so, when families become less significant in a society, when families are conflicted and split, the church will decline. (We usually view it the other way around, as the church declining leads to family issues). From Eberstadt’s perspective, failure of families to lead and grow emotionally stable children might result in this tendency for people to show little or no commitment to a church. I think there has to be some correlation here. Something to think about. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Richard Volzke says:

    I’ve read quite a bit lately about the numbers of pastors getting “burned out” or being frustrated in ministry. Looking at the statistics, I’d venture to say that many are struggling with their emotions and ability to lead in the midst of so much frustration. It seems many of the leaders are disengaging. I appreciate your sharing about ministry to young people, and it made me reflect on how important it is that the leaders of young people have high emotional intelligence and are staying engaged.

  5. mm Deve Persad says:

    Boy John, I think I might need to borrow this whole set of writing for my own research. You distill this in a direction that keeps me motivated for my own research as much as it also drives some of my frustration with the constant influx of strategic models given to make leading easier or more efficient. You so carefully point out that: “In order to lead, I too had to deal with my own inner forces.” One of the biggest blind spots we have (I do any way) is the way in which we mask our own hurts and deficiencies, thinking that they may disqualify us or make us less capable for leadership. When in fact, as you nicely remind us: our weaknesses, in Christ, can be turned into strength. Who was one of your role models in this?

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