the shape of leadership

Leading With Encouragement

Use your words to develop people and help them lean into their gifts

Richard E Stearns on June 9, 2021

I started playing golf in my teens with a cheap set of clubs I bought at the grocery store. Though I was never very good at golf, I couldn’t really blame the clubs. My golf swing featured a long list of mechanical flaws, but my signature symptom was a wicked and consistent slice.

Every one of my drives curved sharply to the right, usually into the woods, an adjacent fairway, or a body of water. This was the only part of my golf game that I could always rely on. Of course, it never dawned on me to take a lesson from a more accomplished golfer to see whether my slice could be corrected.

But sometime in my early 40s, I did take a lesson. The instructor asked me to hit a few balls and immediately noticed my slice. He handed me a tee and said, “Put this tee under your left armpit and hold it there. Then, when you swing, try to make sure the tee doesn’t fall out.”

I hit my next five drives straight down the fairway. This simple trick had corrected my problem by forcing me to rotate my body fully through the swing, thereby hitting the ball squarely and without the dreaded spin that sent my drives careening to the right.

When I speak about leadership issues today, I am sometimes asked what one thing I would have done differently in my career if I had known at the beginning what I know now.

There are a few things I could say in response, but my No. 1 answer is this: I wish I had better understood the power of encouragement to motivate others, lift performance, and help the people around me realize their full, God-given potential. That simple tip could have improved my “leadership slice” and kept me out of some woods and water hazards.

The best leaders know that regular affirmation and encouragement, not criticism, is what helps the people on their team develop confidence, improve their performance, and lean into their gifts and abilities. Encouragement energizes people, while criticism often demoralizes.

The Carrot and the Stick

The starting point for understanding the power of encouragement in our workplace is how we view the people with whom we work. If we see them just as “human resources,” “head count,” or “full-time equivalents,” we woefully misunderstand their significance and potential. But if we see them as uniquely and wonderfully made, with attributes and qualities given to them by their Creator, we can begin to unleash the remarkable abilities God has vested in them.

A leader’s No. 1 job is to help release the unique abilities of each member of his or her team so that they can realize their full potential. A coach’s role is similar — to help each player optimize his or her God-given abilities and then blend all the members’ individual talents to form an effective team. When you embrace this view of your co-workers, encouragement flows more naturally from your lips.

On the other hand, if you look at your co-workers through the lens of their deficits, your tendency will always be to criticize them in order to improve their performance. As a leader, try to see the positives in the people around you and give people the benefit of the doubt. Encouragement is all about using the carrot more often than the stick.

In the Book of Proverbs, we find these ancient bits of wisdom:

The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Proverbs 12:18).

Kind words are like honey — they cheer you up and make you feel strong (Proverbs 16:24, CEV).

Criticism has its place but is much better received when it is cloaked in praise.

Reckless words versus kind words, critical words versus encouraging words. Criticism has its place but is much better received when it is cloaked in praise. Most of us are more likely to receive criticism when it is framed within the context of our positive qualities.

The Stick

So, what do you do when someone on your team consistently fails to carry out his or her responsibilities despite your affirmation and encouragement? It is naive to think that every member of the team will always succeed, and sometimes a leader must make the tough decision to remove someone from a job. This is never an easy step to take because a person’s livelihood is at stake. Terminating someone is one of the hardest things a leader ever does.

But, in truth, removing someone from a role in which he or she is unable to succeed might be the best thing for that person in the long run. When I see someone who is failing in a job despite his or her best efforts, I like to say, “There are no bad people, only good people in the wrong job.”

And while that’s not totally true (there are some bad people with bad attitudes), it is often true. People who are failing in their current job might succeed in a different role that is better aligned with their unique background and abilities.

The Carrot

When we look at Simon Peter in the New Testament, we are struck by his many character flaws: impulsive, inconsistent, prone to anger and to speaking before thinking. Good old Peter. And, as we know, toward the end, he is the one who denies Jesus three times before the cock crows. What kind of performance review would you have given Peter? But notice how Jesus speaks to him in this passage:

“Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:15–18).

This is a remarkable and public “performance review.” Despite the many gaffes Peter had made previously, and those he would make after, on this occasion, when Peter correctly answers His question, Jesus is effusive in His praise. In front of the other disciples, He elevates Peter and announces that he will become an eventual leader.

Just imagine the wind this must have put in Peter’s sails. In the years that would follow, Peter would be arrested, beaten, imprisoned and persecuted as a leader of the Early Church. Ultimately, he died a martyr’s death, brutally crucified upside down.

I wonder how many times in the midst of these trials Peter found encouragement by thinking back to that singular moment when his Savior praised him and placed full confidence in him.

Encouragement is free; it costs you nothing, but it will deliver a huge return on investment. And it works at all levels. You can encourage people below you, above you, and across from you in the organization. When your co-worker in another department does something well, tell him how much you appreciate him. When your boss does something great, affirm her.

As a leader, having encouraging people around me made a huge difference. People like that give you energy and confidence. Be one of them, and surround yourself with people who are encouragers.

This article is adapted from Lead Like It Matters to God by Richard Stearns. Copyright © 2021 by Richard E. Stearns. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. This article appears in the April–June 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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