There I was, halfway through a meeting, when I suddenly realized I had done it again. Without meaning to, I’d become the de facto leader of the group, and everyone was looking at me. I could see clearly that everyone realized I was now in charge. But they weren’t all happy about it.
For one thing, I was a woman—and we all know not everyone is happy when women show their strength. Also, I was young. I was early in my career, and I had only a dim understanding of my leadership gift and the potential strength of my voice. I was using these assets without a lot of intention or awareness, and they sometimes produced results that surprised me. As in meetings like this one.
I hadn’t meant to take over. I had some passion for the topic we were discussing, and I had opened my mouth to advocate for my position. I had challenged what some of the other people said, and I had expected them to challenge me in return if they felt strongly. When they didn’t, I interpreted their silence as agreement. It hadn’t occurred to me that many people don’t meet strength with strength. I didn’t realize I had shut them down.
As I grew to understand myself better and learned from my mistakes, I developed more skill in finessing strength with grace and wisdom. Now when I realize I’m the strongest person in the room, I understand I have to take responsibility to use my strength to serve the whole group, not simply to serve myself.
Do you experience this often? If so, know this is a situation you can handle with carelessness, or with grace and wisdom. Here are some tips for handling it well.
Accept Your Strength
This can be difficult for anyone, but I believe it’s often especially difficult for women with leadership gifts. We don’t always receive affirmation or validation of our strength; in fact, we might receive flat denial and rejection. Sometimes leadership gifts seem like liabilities—they might lead us into more conflict than we would like or undermine the “nice girl” image we sense others want to see. But when people try to deny their God-given gifts, those gifts don’t go away; they go bad. When it’s not honored in a healthy way, a strong leadership gift can become a spirit of contention, scorn, or criticism. When coupled with insecurity, it can become a constant play for attention and control. For everyone’s sake, it’s best if you own your gift, recognize that God has given it to you for his purposes, and accept the responsibilities that come with it. Say “no” to the voice of shame, which tells you that you need to diminish others to prove yourself worthy, or that you need to suppress your voice.
Take the Temperature of the Room
Who’s there? What are they hoping to accomplish? What’s the overall mood, and what do you know about the relationships between the people you’re with? What about your own mood and motives? Your knowledge of the people and circumstances, your intuition in reading the room, and your emotional intelligence should help you understand what people need from you. Does the group need to you be clear and assertive? Does someone need compassion, respect, action, or a listening ear? Make an assessment and rise to the occasion so you can channel your strength in an appropriate direction. It’s important to recognize that your strength can, and probably will, change the temperature in the room. But it doesn’t have to happen by accident. So decide what kind of change you want to make.
Make a Quick Gift Assessment
As you notice each person present, consider their own gifts. Chances are, there’s a lot of potential around that table, and your gifts aren’t the only ones that matter. So make it part of your mission to see that every person has an opportunity to make an important contribution according to his or her gifts. This is an essential leadership responsibility. Exercise your own gift by making sure other gifts are recognized and expressed.
Encourage Other Voices
Like other people’s gifts, other voices are important. Some people need a lot of encouragement to make their voices heard, while others just need to know someone is listening. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your voice is more important, or that it should be louder, than anyone else’s. Rather than drown other voices, use your strength to draw them out. Ask quieter people to weigh in; try asking bashful people specific questions that will be easier to answer than a general request for input. Resist the temptation to jump in and fill quiet pauses. Some people will need them in order to process or frame their thoughts before speaking up.
Be Patient with Others
It’s tempting for leaders to fall in love with their own ideas, charge ahead, and leave others—and their objections—in the dust. Eventually such leaders find themselves burned out, lonely, or in trouble, running a one-person show without support or fighting fires they could have avoided by listening to objections from the beginning. Recognize that everyone is different, and those who think or communicate in ways that are slower, faster, quieter, or louder than you need space to be themselves. Let them do things their way. People with objections need to be heard, so listen. People with questions need thoughtful answers. And people who don’t seem to buy in to your brilliant vision might be right—exercising a little patience now could save you from a big mistake.
Work Toward Consensus
Complete consensus isn’t always possible, but it’s always worth reaching for. Rather than strive for simple agreement, be ready to collaborate or compromise. You don’t need to suppress your voice, but you might need to soften it to welcome conversation and disagreement. And always be ready to face the possibility that someone else knows better than you do.
You can speak with a strong voice, and be a leader, without undermining other people’s roles or authority. In fact, disrespecting authority is one way to lose other people’s respect for you. If someone else is leading a meeting, let that person be the leader. If another person is the resident expert on the organization’s history, let that person be the expert. As you exercise strength without undermining others, you will learn from them and they will learn to welcome your participation rather than see you as a threat.
Being strong is one thing; knowing how to use your strength is another. Like any gift, it’s best handled with awareness and intentionality. So take ownership of what God has given you, invite him to correct and teach you, and use your strength well.
Amy Simpson is a life and leadership coach, a popular speaker, and the award-winning author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission and Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry (both InterVarsity Press). You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, and on Twitter @aresimpson.