Why leadership cannot be your identity

“How do you avoid losing yourself in your roles as wife and mom?”

I was recently doing an interview for my new book, Free of Me, when a podcaster asked me this question. He was curious, because my book is about focusing on God instead of ourselves. He wondered if some people are tempted in the opposite direction—rather than focusing on themselves, they lose themselves entirely.

Without a doubt, this is a temptation for women, most notably mothers and wives. The vision of the self-sacrificing woman, who lays herself down for her husband and kids, stands like a measuring stick over us. Who among us would not want to be remembered for our selfless love for others? And as a result, how many women have run themselves into the ground trying to measure up?

I have seen this happen to many of my friends, whose identities were consumed by their roles as mothers and wives.

However, that is not my struggle. Not exactly, anyway.

The Stereotype and the Reality

There is an age-old stereotype about women and men, and where each derives their identity: women lose themselves in family, and men lose themselves in work. So the stereotype goes.

I think there is some truth to this stereotype, but my story doesn’t fit that mold. My personal temptation is toward the reverse: I tend to lose myself in my work—not my family—and that’s what I told the interviewer.

I think a lot of women are like me. We don’t fit the stereotype. Instead, our calling or career is a big part of our identities.

And yet, I don’t think I’m all that different from women whose identities are wrapped up in their families, and this is why: whether you are a man or a woman, and whether you lose yourself in your family or your work, the underlying problem is essentially the same. Each of us is tempted to place our identities in something other than Christ.

The reason many women over-extend themselves in the quest to be perfect mothers, and the reason many businessmen and businesswomen burn out as they climb the corporate ladder, it’s the same reason. Their identities are tied to those things. And when your identity is tied to anything other than Christ, it isn’t long before that “thing” becomes a slave master.

This temptation, then, is in all of us. Whether you are a high-ranking executive, or a stay-at-home mom, we are all tempted to place our identities in what we do, rather than what Christ has done. And when this happens, it doesn’t simply affect our emotional and spiritual health. It also affects the people around us.

The Danger of a Codependent Leader

Experts believe that a high percentage of pastors have codependent personalities, meaning they “need to be needed.” This characteristic is, in fact, the very thing that draws many pastors to the work. Unfortunately, codependency makes for an incredibly toxic leadership environment, both inside and outside the church. As soon as a leader’s identity gets bound up in their title, their clout, their hero status, their power, or their position, they will serve that position like a slave, until they ultimately burn out. And perhaps even worse, they will trample and manipulate others in order to maintain it.  

That’s why it is so important for leaders to keep a constant watch on the source of their identity, and to surround themselves with others to hold them accountable. It’s also important to distinguish this slave-like commitment to our roles—both as parents or as leaders—from true, selfless, leadership. When our identities are bound up in our work, then our service is anything but selfless. Instead, we are putting ourselves first.

When our identities and our leadership are founded on Christ, the outcome will never be burn out. Exhaustion? Sometimes. Dying to self. Most definitely. But The fruit of serving God instead of ourselves is always flourishing—in ourselves, and in those around us—and that’s how we can know the difference.

Adapted from Sharon’s recently released book Free of Me: Why Life is Better When It’s Not about You.

Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, speaker, pastor’s wife, PhD, and Mom. She blogs at SheWorships.com, and she is the author of Free of Me: Why Life Is Better When It’s Not About You  (2017). You can connect with Sharon on Instagram.   

Join the discussion

Hope Frye December 5, 2017 at 4:27am

Thank you Sharon for sharing something to keep aware of especially as a future youth pastor. Colossians 2:9-10 says “ For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” It’s important that we remember why we do what we do and that is because the Lord, our ruler and savior, delights in us when we minister to others. However, I do wonder if there are practical steps or tools to remember as women of God on a daily basis or what steps I could have now before I become a youth pastor to avoid this trap.

Donna Jones November 9, 2017 at 6:44am

Love your insights! I'm in the middle of writing a Bible study on this very topic, and I couldn't agree with you more. Thank you for sharing. And congratulations on your new book!

Nikki November 9, 2017 at 6:00am

Although I get the overall message the article is presenting I found it unhelpful. The definition of codependency as “the need to be needed” is inadequate. The premise of finding ones identity in Christ is a beautiful one and practical suggestions on how this is achieved would be helpful.

Susan Gruener November 5, 2017 at 7:17am

Truths here! I'm taking note!

Kathy combs November 5, 2017 at 1:24am

Wow, just what I needed to hear! Thank you for your teaching.

Kelley O'Brien-Green November 3, 2017 at 8:08am

PERFECT Sharon!! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and heart. I needed to read this today. To God Be the Glory!