the shape of leadership

The Cure for the Complaining Leader

Embracing gratitude in a world of negativity

Stephen Blandino on November 29, 2018


We just wrapped up Thanksgiving — a day we gather with friends and family to remember our blessings and express gratitude to one another. Interestingly, before the day ends, we start ramping up for an early start to Black Friday. I have nothing against Black Friday, but you have to admit that’s it’s kind of ironic how the biggest day of gratitude is followed by the biggest day of greed.

Greed isn’t the only thing that robs our grateful hearts after Thanksgiving; complaining quickly follows. While we’re getting the best deal, we’re complaining about the traffic, long lines and crazy shoppers.

Complaining is so common in our culture that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. We complain about the weather, school, work and our overpacked schedules. We go home and complain about not being married, who we married, our kids’ junky rooms, and the neighbor’s barking dog.

Anything that’s not just right triggers a litany of complaints. The Wi-Fi is too slow. The drive-thru line is too long. They didn’t put enough caramel on my Ultra Caramel Frappuccino. Complaining has become our native language, and leaders often speak the language best.

Perhaps the most well-known complaining story in Scripture is that of the Israelites after God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. When Moses sent 12 spies to explore the land of Canaan, Joshua and Caleb returned with a faith-filled report: We can conquer the land. But the other 10 spies gave a negative report. That’s when the Israelites’ troubles began.

Numbers 14:1-4 says, “That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt’” (emphasis added).

A closer look at this passage reveals four things the Israelites complained about: circumstances, God, uncertainty and their leaders. As a leader, you can probably relate. How often has your team, your organization, or your congregation pointed out what’s wrong as the faith to step into a better tomorrow went straight out the window?

What was the result of the Israelite’s complaining? Psalm 106:24-25 says, “Then they despised the pleasant land; they did not believe his promise. They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the Lord.” Complaining led to disobedience.

As leaders, we often see everything that’s wrong. Our vision for excellence and impact is the filter through which we view every attempt at success. When something’s slightly off, we notice it. We miss the 10 great things that happened, and we point out the one thing that could have been better. In short, we complain.

Complaining also shows up when we want to do something great, but the mountains in front of us look too high. We start grumbling as we point out all the reasons we can’t do what God is calling us to do. And so we don’t. Instead, we complain about everything we coulda, shoulda, would have done if only our circumstances had been different. Like the Israelites, we grumble, and our complaining ends in disobedience.

When we’re tempted to complain, the Israelites provide an important lesson: You can complain yourself right out of God’s promises. Why? Because God’s promises are built on faith, but complaining is built on fear.

Complaining has become our native language, and leaders often speak the language best.

The Israelites were afraid of the giants in the land that God had promised to give them, so they complained about God, their circumstances and their leaders. And while they were grumbling in their tents, the promises of God were crumbling right before them.

Please hear this: Some of us are so busy grumbling in our “tents” that we can no longer see the good things the Lord has done, or the good things the Lord has prepared for us. That’s one consequence of complaining: It magnifies your problems and minimizes your God. As a result, you miss out on the promises God desires to deliver to you and through your leadership.

A second consequence is just as painful: Our complaining becomes the language of the entire organization. Leaders are influencers, and what they model will set the tone for the rest of the team and the rest of the church.

Philippians 2:14 says, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing.” Everything seems a bit extreme. Life’s just not that good. And yet the apostle Paul wrote these words while sitting in a prison cell. If anyone had a right to complain, it was Paul. So, what’s the cure for the complaining leader?

Change Your Problem

Have you ever noticed how often we complain about problems that are actually in our power to change? So, why don’t we change things? Because there’s usually a price tag associated with the change. It will require us to become more disciplined, put in the time to get better grades, apply for a different job, or start a difficult conversation.

The truth is, most of us are one hard conversation away from a different life, but we’re too afraid of what that conversation will cost us. So, we just keep complaining, because it’s easier to complain than it is to change.

Change Your Perspective

Paul couldn’t solve his problem of being in jail, so he changed his perspective instead. He focused on the positive. Paul said, “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear” (Philippians 1:12-14).

Paul didn’t have to see things that way. He could have griped and complained about how hard it was in prison. He could have complained that he didn’t have a comfortable place to sleep or decent food to eat. But Paul understood that complaining doesn’t eliminate your problems; it only extends your problems. It turns your problem into a bigger problem. Instead, Paul changed his perspective and gave thanks for the good things that were happening — that the gospel was advancing.

A year ago, I challenged our congregation to keep a gratitude journal for 30 days. One lady in our church who took up the challenge kept writing beyond the 30-day period. Every single day, this lady recorded two things she was thankful for, and that simple discipline began to change the perspective on her circumstances. With so much hardship in the world, her mind found and focused on the good.

What would happen if we adopted the same approach? What would happen if we didn’t just give thanks on Thanksgiving, but we became thankful leaders?

In his letter to the church in Thessalonica, the apostle Paul wrote: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Notice, he didn’t say, “Give thanks when everything goes your way.” Or, “Give thanks when you experience double-digit growth.” Or, “Give thanks when leaders abound and resources are plentiful.”

Those are certainly things to give thanks for, but they don’t represent the “all” that Paul wrote about. “All” encompasses the good and the difficult.

I’m as guilty of complaining as anybody. Again, it has become our native language. But our complaining has consequences, and its cure is to express gratitude. Not just on Thanksgiving. Not just when things go our way. But always. What would happen if we modeled the way, and became thankful leaders?


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