the shape of leadership

The Leadership Drug of Applause

The danger of pursuing affirmation in ministry

Applause is the natural response to a great performance. Concerts, touchdowns, Broadway musicals, and the shot that wins the game attract the enthusiastic applause of fans and admirers. As wonderful as it feels, applause is also a drug that creates a temporary high. It’s easy to get addicted.

The same is true in leadership. Leaders love applause. It feels good when people tell us how great we preached, how inspiring our vision is, and how indispensable we are to the church or organization. Praise in itself isn’t wrong. In fact, praise is a healthy part of building people and empowering teams.

Everybody needs encouragement. But leaders dance on a dangerous edge when they seek and savor applause.

Seeking applause happens when we fish for compliments on our most recent performance. We know how hard we worked, and a small tribute to our greatness seems only appropriate. But Jesus warned us about this danger when He said, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

Don’t let your appetite for earthly recognition silence your heavenly reward.

The other side of the coin is to savor the applause. Rather than humbly acknowledging the applause and then quickly moving on, we savor it like a rich chocolate dessert topped with ice cream, caramel and whipped cream. Deep down, we yearn for a second helping. It’s not uncommon for our private savoring of applause to turn into a public pursuit for more.

While applause is a sincere way to affirm performance, leaders must keep it in the right perspective.

In their book, The Laws of Lifetime Growth, Dan Sullivan and Catherine Nomura observe that applause can be a growth stopper. They warn leaders that applause “stifles the imagination and undermines motivation. By always focusing on improving your performance and treating applause as a byproduct that you accept with gratitude, you can ensure continued growth.”

That’s a great way to view applause — as a byproduct rather than an end in itself. If all you do is seek and savor applause, your addiction to it will undermine your leadership and bring your growth to an end. So, how do you keep applause from becoming an addiction? Here are three thoughts to consider.


Practice Confession

The continual hunger for applause is usually an indicator of a couple of unhealthy roots growing deep within our soul — insecurity and pride. Insecurity leads us on a constant search for affirmation. We need people to tell us how good we are, and when they do, we keep milking it until we’ve sucked every last drop of praise they have to give.

What was meant to be a three-minute affirmation turns into an exhausting 30-minute quest for more. The more that happens, the less likely people are to applaud your next great performance.

Leaders dance on a dangerous edge when they seek and savor applause.

The other root that feeds our hunger for applause is pride. Again, we savor it and then go seeking for more of it. Pride is a dangerously deceptive sin that robs praise from God and hoards credit for ourselves. No wonder God opposes the proud (1 Peter 5:5).

Interestingly, humility is a much more attractive quality, and it usually draws applause much more quickly. Proverbs 29:23 says, “Pride brings a person low, but the lowly in spirit gain honor.”

Both of these roots — insecurity and pride — loosen their hold when we practice confession to God in prayer. Look for evidence of the fruit of the root. Then confess it to the Lord and bring your heart into a posture of submission to Christ. Daily confession and submission immediately implies a lower position. It helps us keep our feet (and our egos) on the ground.

Leadership authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner observed the importance of humility when they said, “The words human and humble share a common origin. They both come from the Latin humus, meaning earth. To be human and humble is to be down-to-earth, both feet planted firmly on the ground. Interesting, isn’t it, how as people climb the ranks in organizations, they also climb to a higher floor in the building, getting farther and farther away from the ground? It gets harder and harder to remain humble the higher up you go.”

Welcome Critique

“Yes” leaders only surround themselves with people who will tell them what they want to hear. If the condition persists, the leader will be woefully misinformed and misguided. The drug of applause will be coursing through the leader’s veins while quietly dismantling the organization’s effectiveness.

I know it hurts to receive critiques. I hear them weekly, and sometimes they’re downright painful and frankly irritating. But I have to work hard to remind myself that I need to hear them.

Unless you welcome critique, you’ll never get better. Again, applause will disrupt your personal and organizational growth. Proverbs 12:1 reminds us, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid.”

Share the Credit

Finally, work hard to share the credit with your team. When your team experiences a win, acknowledge it. Thank them for it. Celebrate it. This is a discipline — one that I can quickly forget if my mental pace becomes cluttered with an ever-increasing list of things to do.

Big performances are rarely solo endeavors. They require teams, many of whom serve behind the scenes. Acknowledge these leaders and team players, and express appreciation for their hard work, long hours and commitment to excellence.

When you cultivate a culture of sharing the credit, you’re more prone to deflect the applause you receive and redirect it to the people who did much of the work. As Arnold Glasow said, “A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.”

Run from the addiction of applause by confessing your addiction to the Lord and submitting your heart to Him. Then create a safe culture where you can welcome critique and share the credit with the rest of your team. You’ll grow increasingly more secure, and your team will appreciate your vulnerability and willingness to honor others.


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