the shape of leadership

Overcoming the Fear of Rejection in Leadership

Live to please God rather than people

Fear is often the companion of leadership. If you’re stepping into new territory (which leadership implies), your confident leadership is often hiding some deep-rooted fears.

However, the only way to deal with those fears is to face them head-on. Pastor Mark Batterson observed, “The cure for the fear of failure is not success. It’s failure. The cure for the fear of rejection is not acceptance. It’s rejection. You’ve got to be exposed to small quantities of whatever you’re afraid of. That’s how you build up immunity.”

When we run from our fears, our fears gain more power over our lives. Yet the Bible assures us,For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

While the category of fear can be deep and wide, one of the biggest fears in leadership is the fear of rejection. We fear rejection from key influencers. We fear rejection of our big ideas and bold visions. We fear rejection from people who claim to be loyal but are starting to show signs of disengagement.

We can all point to times when rejection rang loud and clear, and with that rejection, a seed of fear was planted. That seed of rejection wants to produce two types of fruit in your life: pride and paralysis.

The Fruit of Pride

In John 12, after Jesus preached and performed miracles, something interesting happened: The people refused to put their faith in Him. Why? Verse 42 says, “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue” (emphasis added).

What was the culprit? Pride.

Pride produced a downward spiral of rejection. It started with a fear of human rejection, which led to the rejection of Jesus, and ended with rejection from God.

Jesus said, “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day” (John 12:47-48).

Simply put, fear of rejection perpetuated rejection. Their fear of short-term rejection opened the door to long-term rejection. Their fear of temporal rejection opened the door to eternal rejection. Again, pride was the root of the fear of rejection. Verse 43 says, “for they loved human praise more than praise from God.”

We must allow our devotion to God’s approval to be stronger than our desire for human acceptance.

Author and business coach Marshall Goldsmith tells the story of having dinner with one of the top officers in the U.S. Army. At the table were seven newly minted generals. As the officer contemplated finally leaving the military, he reflected back on his own experience, smiled, and then said to the new generals: “Have you noticed that lately, whenever you tell a joke, everyone laughs? You aren’t that funny! Have you noticed that lately, whenever you make a comment, people nod in agreement? You aren’t that smart!”

The officer grew serious and continued, “Always remember, they are not saluting you. They are saluting that star on your shoulder — all that it stands for, and all that it has stood for over the years. Never let admiration go to your head. When you quit wearing that star, they won’t be saluting anymore.”

The lessons are clear. First, if you’re in a position of power, one day you’ll face rejection, and some people won’t care like they once did. Leadership involves hard decisions, and somewhere along the way you’ll experience rejection when you have to make the tough call.

Second, whether you’re leading or following, pride will cause you to pander to others because you fear the rejection that will come if you don’t. Stop chasing the applause of others. Stay humble.

The Fruit of Paralysis

The fear of rejection will not only lead you to a place of pride, but it will also lead you to a place of paralysis. The fear of rejection wants to paralyze you by closing doors of opportunity when people reject you.

Take G. Campbell Morgan, for example. In 1888, he and other young hopeful preachers stood before three men who had the power to determine whether they had a calling to preach. At the end of the day, two lists were posted: “Accepted” and “Rejected.”

Morgan felt crushed when his named appeared on the “Rejected” list. He sent a telegram to his father with one word: “Rejected.” A few days later, his father wisely responded: “Rejected by men, accepted by God.”

In the years that followed, Morgan went on to become a pastor, Bible scholar, and evangelist, crisscrossing the Atlantic 54 times preaching the gospel. The fear of rejection could have paralyzed him, but instead it catalyzed Morgan into his destiny.

We cannot allow the fear of rejection to produce in us the fruit of pride and the fruit of paralysis. Pride tells us we’re better than we really are, and paralysis tells us we’re worse than we really are. Both are unhealthy.

Instead, we must allow our devotion to God’s approval to be stronger than our desire for human acceptance. Only then can we defeat the fear of rejection. Here’s the good news: God’s approval doesn’t hinge on your performance. He loves you the same on your best day and on your worst day.

The next time the fear of rejection tries to seep into your heart and mind, remember Proverbs 29:25: “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.” Then, lean humbly in to the grace of God, and obediently follow where He leads.

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