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A number of years ago, I heard an incredible guest speaker. I was among a huge congregation, and this man had every person’s complete attention.

He was sharing vulnerably about his struggles: from arguments with his wife to sexual temptation, and even the way being a pastor made him crave the spotlight. It was almost shocking how much he was willing to reveal, given how little he knew his audience.

“So you see,” he said after a dramatic pause, “even pastors don’t have it all together. We’re sinners in need of grace, just like everyone else.” And I thought to myself: “This man has great self-awareness. He must be a leader of great honesty and integrity.”

And then, a year later, I heard the same man in another pulpit, give a nearly identical speech. Same arguments with the wife, same admissions of sexual temptation, same dramatic pauses.

And I had to do a double-take.

Observing him more closely, I noticed this pastor actually seemed to be enjoying giving the sermon, even when sharing about things that should sober or humble any individual! He loved seeing every eye in the crowd fixed on him, even while he ironically was sharing about that very temptation of craving the spotlight. He loved the way congregation members came up to him afterward, telling him, “You are so brave to have shared that.”

It made me think. This leader has self-awareness, but isn’t something wrong here? Is self-awareness really enough?

Our culture thinks it is.

We applaud the CEO who confesses his impatience, insensitivity or temper—because it seems to show he realizes those things are bad and need to be worked on. In 2007, a survey of 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council asked, “What is the single most important capability for leaders to develop?” The top-rated answer? Self-awareness. Know yourself, and the rest will follow.

And yet, we often reward ourselves and others too quickly for self-awareness, when it is only the first step of growth and maturity.

When a leader admits his or her weaknesses in front of an audience, I think to myself: “That’s great that you see that and can articulate it so well. But how will you follow that up? What kinds of steps will you take over the next few months and years in response to what you just shared with everyone? Are you sharing because you want admiration—or accountability?”

Skill is not maturity.

And if we are sharing our weaknesses without a healthy sense of sobriety and grief, we have to ask ourselves whether our self-awareness is a demonstration of skill, intended to impress. If we have no plan to follow up on things we struggle with, is our sharing really much more than a performance of words?

It’s similar to the parable Jesus tells to the religious leaders of his day in Matthew 21:28-31:

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

Jesus calls out the religious leaders who know how to ask crafty questions and answer theological matters but do not repent and do the will of God.

And how often are we like those religious leaders? It is so easy to say we will do what we say, because in so many situations, we are rewarded for our ability to communicate. But skill is not enough in God’s eyes. He’s looking at our hearts, and whether we have the maturity to allow ourselves to be transformed. And change of any significance comes through the heart.

So where to go from here? I’ve found two ideas that have helped me greatly in this area. 

The first is to cede some control of my image.

So often, my temptation to “perform” is rooted in my desire to control and manage my own image in front of others. I hate being misrepresented or misunderstood. So when people ask me what my weaknesses are, I often tell them, “Why don’t you ask my wife or friends that question when I’m not around?” That way, I can’t just paint whatever picture I want of myself.

Second, our challenge is to follow through with what we confess.

That’s not to say we won’t continue to struggle with things, but we can actively work on them! So when I share something I need to work on, I invite others to ask me about it next month, next year and beyond. That compels me to stay accountable, and hopefully also careful about what I choose to say.

We should never mistake skill for maturity. Yet this is so easy to do in many worlds, from business to ministry.

If you’re a good speaker, and skilled with people, you have the ability to use that to work to your advantage. As our intelligence and skills develop, they actually increase our ability and temptation to seek admiration, rather than true accountability from others and transformation from God. That’s why we have to be extra cautious, and always humble.

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