Seven Deadly Thoughts of Leaders

By the time we hear of a leadership failure, any attempts at intervention to save the leader are usually futile. The damage has been done. The family or organization suffers as their leader has fallen or, at the very least, made a major mistake.

Most great leadership failures, however, don’t begin with some stupid action. The leader usually has thoughts about the action well before he or she actually makes them. Some of those thoughts can be warning signs to heed. They are like the bright, flashing red light that demands we stop. Failure to stop can result in great harm.

I’ve had the opportunity through the years to listen to leaders talk about their biggest victories and their greatest failures. When the latter takes place, these leaders reflect that, most of the time, the failure took place in a deadly thought pattern. They lament they didn’t recognize these deadly thoughts for the warnings that they were. Here are the seven most significant warning thoughts I’ve heard:

  1. “It won’t hurt to compromise a little.” So the numbers get fudged a bit. Or the private meeting with someone of the opposite gender is deemed harmless. Or you take credit for something you didn’t do.
  2. “I can give my family time later in life when I’m more established.” You may not even have a family if you wait until later. Few leaders have ever died wishing they had put more hours into work. Many have died lamenting their failure to give their family time and attention.
  3. “No one really pays attention to what I do.” Wrong! If you are a leader, many people are watching you more closely than you think. In organizations, those under your leadership watch you closely. In families, the children watch the parents with an eye for detail that can be downright humbling. What are they seeing when they watch you?
  4. “I need to be careful not to rock the boat.” Granted, some people put their mouths in action before their minds are in gear. But too many leaders, to mix the metaphor from a boat to an athletic event, play defense and not offense. They are too risk averse. They are more worried about failure than proactive leadership. Thus their thought patterns are almost always about playing it safe.
  5. “I can put off that tough decision until later.” Leaders often think difficult decisions can be put on hold. They are involved in “analysis paralysis” thinking as an excuse to defer the decisions. Their thinking leads them to deadly procrastination.
  6. “That person messed up five years ago. He doesn’t deserve a second chance.” Many driven leaders shared with me that they failed to demonstrate forgiveness and grace in their leadership role. Their thought patterns focused on the failures of those in the organization or family. They thus “wrote off” these people. When a time came in the leader’s life where he needed an extra measure of grace or forgiveness shown, few people were willing to give him what he himself failed to give.
  7. “My main goal is money.” Money is not evil; the love of money is. If leaders’ thought patterns are consumed with money, problems are on the horizon. Money can be an instrument for good or evil. The goal is not to make money, but to make a difference with your money.

I am grateful to be able to hear from leaders who shared with me openly and transparently. What would you add to these seven deadly thoughts?


  1. Dan says

    #8: “If I don’t do it no one will.” or “No one is going to do it as well as I.” We need to kill the fear of delegation. Know your people. Know their gifts. Put their gifts to work! In my experience, folks don’t walk up and volunteer. They aren’t lazy, they simply don’t know the need unless we reveal the need. In most cases (for whatever the reason) we would rather do it ourselves than to reach out.

  2. says

    Timely list for many leaders Thom.

    What I find so unsettling about the list is that many of these thoughts can creep into a leader’s mind at an almost subconscious level. For example, few would actually form the words in their mind, “My main goal is money”, and yet that value can slide into one’s mind and show up as an unspoken value.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post.

  3. says

    When the leader thinks that his decision is correct while many are telling opposite (especially, if they come from different departments), there is a sign that he over-trusts himself & is not able to look at the issue from other point of view.
    Leaders should be confident, but any extra confidence than needed will not work for the benefit of him.
    Thank you for this interesting topic.

  4. says

    Thank you for sharing these wise truths about leadership. I especially took #2 to heart. I needed to be reminded of it. As a writer, worship leader, speaker and artist it is easy for me to get caught up in the “doing” of women’s ministry. It’s easy to let the thought of becoming more established keep me from living in today and cherishing my family. Truth is, God has given that job solely to me as a wife and mother. Thanks again! Ashley

  5. Liam says

    #8 “I can’t do that! I’m a leader and people are watching.” – 1 Tim 3 teaches us that overseers should be “above reproach” but leaders must always remember that whether you are a leader or not, we are called to holiness. We must be serious about avoiding sin but a leader’s motivation must never be for self-image but always to glorify God. Guard your hearts!

  6. Kim says

    “I work so hard , no one appreciates me the way I should be appreciated, I deserve a little treat/fun/reward.” That attitude can lead to stealing, adultery, lying, etc. etc.

  7. Barry says

    Fatal Thought #8:
    “I’m too important to step down. This ministry can’t survive without me.”
    Any real Christian ministry belongs to the Lord Jesus, not the servants who work there. He can provide whatever it needs, including someone to replace you, or another ministry to replace “yours”.

  8. Beth says

    I would add “If I apologize or admit weakness, people will stop following me.” I have only once served under a leader who apologized for his mistakes and sought forgiveness on a personal level with those he had spoken harshly too or misjudged.

  9. says

    Tom, this sparks a thought and a question:

    Can you recommend any books or resources regarding decision-making? I have accrued a fair degree of experience these past 15 years, but I have identified that I often weigh and consider decisions about staffing and ministry direction too long. I would like to sharpen my decision-making process so that I can trust my judgment.

    Any recommendations?

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