The tyranny of the urgent. Many of us have heard of the phrase. In the busyness of life, the task list grows, the inbox overflows, and it’s all we can do just to keep up. The urgent rules our decisions and actions, rather than what’s most important.
What fails to get highlighted, though, is that what’s most urgent is often what’s most selfish.
Think about it. When life gets full, and we have little to no margin, what will come first? Our own needs. Self-servitude. One might call it the “tyranny of self.”
Of course, on a certain level this is understandable. We often can’t serve others effectively, if we’re not in good shape ourselves.
But I’d point out two things here.
First, self-servitude too often becomes a pattern in our lives, that can and will define how we lead and relate to people. Yes, there will be seasons when circumstances force us to prioritize taking care of ourselves, whether it’s illness, a newborn in the house, an unexpected accident or project, and so on. But if we find ourselves consistently putting our needs ahead of others, whether in work or in our families, we shouldn’t just blame the circumstances of life. Instead, we need to look more deeply at our hearts, and the way we approach leadership (and life).
Part of what lies behind a self-serving dynamic is an underlying struggle for control, fueled by a lack of ability to handle the anxieties of life. For example, one of my teammates frequently describes “task management leaders” who relate to their responsibilities primarily with a view to check boxes, and accomplish tasks as quickly and painlessly as possible. So often in doing things this way, however, they are driven by what will make their own lives easier, and by a desire to avoid the anxiety that comes with task and communication build up. But if this is our leadership paradigm, how can we truly see beyond ourselves in order to serve other people, or a greater good? More often than not, this approach leads to short-sighted, oversimplified, and self-centered decision making. Why? Because long-term thinking about complex issues, and what will truly serve other people, sometimes creates more work and takes longer. And the last thing a task management leader wants is more on his or her plate.
This is a form of self-absorption that’s slightly different from the self-obsession of narcissism. Here, the question isn’t so much “What will this do for me?”, but rather, “What will this do to me?” In contrast, a servant leader will ask, “What is the right thing to do, or what will be best for others or the greater picture, regardless of how it affects me?”
The second thing I want to point out is that busyness is often self-imposed, and that too can be selfish, though it’s rarely seen in that light. One thing I’ve noticed while working in ministry, is how many people enjoy being busy, because it’s a sign of productivity and worth. Since there are so many needs around us, it’s quite possible to fill our time and schedule with activities and commitments, just to fill our need for validation. But as described earlier, busyness can inhibit our capacity to truly serve others, and often by filling our task lists compulsively, we’ve effectively chosento create our own lack of margin!
So what to do about this form of self-absorption, that consumes us in our own worlds, and prevents us from true servant leadership?
One thing I’ve been learning this year through one of my coaches is a new way of thinking about self-control. So often, we look at self-control in light of resisting evil urges, or even shutting down emotions. But I think we need to start seeing self-control as a loving discipline of servant leadership, wherebyone resists temptation to max out one’s capacity with self-serving or self-absorbed projects. I believe self-control means a refusal to make decisions solely by what makes our lives easier, whether at home or at work.
For me, that means a number of things. It’s having the maturity to discern what I’m not called to do, though I’m tempted by an opportunity, or flattered by somebody’s request to do something. In the ministry world, that’s harder to do than we might think, since our jobs require us to be fairly versatile in speaking, writing, and teaching on a diverse range of topics. It’s being able to consistently say no (and that means very often!), in order to focus on our biggest priorities, and leave enough margin to be able to not only respond in a timely manner to the needs of others, but to anticipate those needs and provide the kind of quality leadership that people deserve.
Note: One small example of something that my wife and I do to fight against self-absorption: every night when we pray together, at least 75% of the time we make it a point to pray for somebody else besides ourselves. It’s really hard to do this, when life is full and we are consumed with dozens of our own concerns, but we’ve made it into a habit. And we’ve actually found it often feels freeing to think and care about others during these times. It brings perspective.
When I think about the past decade, there have been far too many seasons when I was in survival mode, and I had little margin to serve anyone or anything outside of the projects that were ruling my life. If I’m honest, that was self-absorption… how could I possibly have been in a position to provide thoughtful or timely leadership, when all I could handle was finishing the tasks in front of me? And I see this in ministry leaders everywhere. Its effects are clear — their responsiveness in communication slows, they have problems following through (or settle for shortcuts), and their relationships suffer, whether at work or home.
You know the craziest thing, though? At the end of it all, many of us shake our heads and simply say, “That’s life!” as if this has little to do with our choices, or approach to leadership and life. Some may even view their busyness with some twisted sense of satisfaction, that they were so “in demand” that they just weren’t able to keep up. But that’s a totally self-absorbed mindset, and even more than that, it’s just plain wrong.
Again, don’t read this as claiming it’s somehow wrong to be busy. We should be intentional about using our time towards effectiveness. But if we’re not careful to exercise self-control, we can easily end up in a pattern of self-servitude, where we can’t see outside of our own world of task-elimination. And that can quickly become a very small world, that prevents us from perceiving or embracing bigger leadership moments and opportunities. And who pays the price, when we miss these moments? Not us. Those we serve.
I hope I’m communicating well enough, that this isn’t just about time and priorities. How we serve ourselves and others ultimately stems from a much deeper place; it does flow from how we see ourselves and others. In so many self-serving decisions that are made, do you see the undercurrent of power and privilege (and sometimes even entitlement) that’s there? But God holds us accountable, for all we do and neglect to do. Consider these words from one of my favorite passages, Ezekiel 34:
This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock… therefore, because my shepherdscared for themselves rather than for my flock… I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.
I get goosebumps when I read these words. Because of their truth, and how humbled it should make every leader who reads them. God isn’t looking at time and efficiency paradigms; He’s looking at our hearts! This is a stewardship issue… and if we fail to serve others because we’re too preoccupied taking care of ourselves, that’s an abuse of leadership power. Let’s never underestimate what we’re entrusted with in leadership. Never.
So the next time you hear the phrase “tyranny of the urgent,” don’t just assume it’s due to the inevitabilities of life. If we’re honest, our leadership and life might be ruled by a “tyranny of the self.” For the sake of others and God… and for our own sakes, let’s have the courage and integrity to reevaluate how we’re approaching life and leadership. Like all forms of self-absorption, the problem often has more to do with us, than we realize.
So what do you think? What else can help us become less self-absorbed in the way we serve?
Questions for further reflection or discussion:
List a few things in your life that are most non-urgent and important. Now list a few things that you consider to be most pressing and urgent.
Looking at both lists, how much of each pertains to serving you and your needs? How much pertains to serving others and their needs? What kind of conclusions can you draw from these observations?
When have you felt like you were in “survival mode”? How did it impact your decisions, the people around you, and your leadership?
How often do you find yourself thinking, or evaluating things by the question, “What will this do to me?” as opposed to “What is going to do right by others?” If it helps, think about various leadership situations you’ve faced (i.e. a significant decision to be made, an underlying problem or conflict that’s been brought to your attention, an opportunity to platform or serve another person, etc.).
To what degree is busyness a source of pride for you? Which, if any activities or responsibilities might you have taken on mainly to feel productive or useful?
What kind of steps can you take to build self-control, so as to maintain enough margin to truly serve other people?