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Characteristics of the Emotionally Unhealthy Leader

Posted on March 17th, 2015

Before writing The Emotionally Healthy Leader (Zondervan, July, 2015), I was challenged to distill the core qualities of an emotionally unhealthy leader. I landed on four:

They Have Low Self-Awareness

Emotionally unhealthy leaders tend to be unaware of what is going on inside them.. They ignore emotion-related messages their body may send—fatigue, stress-induced illness, weight gain, ulcers, headaches, or depression. They avoid reflecting on their fears, sadness, or anger, and fail to consider how God might be trying to communicate with them through these “difficult” emotions.

Moreover, they struggle to articulate the reasons for their emotional triggers, i.e. overreactions in the present rooted in difficult experiences from their past, and they remain unaware of how issues from their family of origin have impacted who they are today. This lack of emotional awareness also extends to their personal and professional relationships. In fact, they are often blind to the emotional impact they have on others, especially in their leadership role.

They Prioritize Ministry Over Marriage or Singleness

Whether married or single, most emotionally unhealthy leaders would nevertheless affirm the importance of a healthy intimacy in relationships and lifestyle, but few, if any, have a vision for their marriage or singleness as the greatest gift they offer to the church and the world. Instead, they view their marriage or singleness as an essential and stable foundation for something more important—the building an effective ministry, which is their first priority. As a result, they invest the best of their time and energy in becoming better equipped as a leader, and invest very little in cultivating a great marriage or single life that reveals Jesus’ love to the world.

They Do More Activity for God than Their Relationship with God Can Sustain

Emotionally unhealthy leaders are chronically overextended. Although they routinely have too much to do in too little time, they persist in saying a kneejerk yes to new opportunities before prayerfully and carefully discerning God’s will. The notion of a slowed down spirituality—or slowed down leadership—in which their doing for Jesus flows out of their being with Jesus, is a foreign concept.

If they think of it at all, spending time in solitude and silence is viewed as a luxury or something best suited for a different kind of leader, not something essential for effective leadership. Their first priority is leading their organization, team, or ministry as a means of impacting the world for Christ. If you were to ask them to list their top three priorities for how they spend their time as a leader, it’s unlikely that cultivating a deep, transformative relationship with Jesus would even make the list. As a result, fragmentation and depletion constitute the “normal” condition for their lives and their leadership.

They Lack a Work/Sabbath Rhythm

Emotionally unhealthy leaders do not practice Sabbath—a weekly, twenty-four period in which they cease all work, rest, delight in God’s gifts, and enjoy life with him. They might view Sabbath observance as irrelevant, optional, or even a burdensome legalism that belongs to an ancient past. Or, they may make no distinction between the biblical practice of Sabbath and a day off, using “Sabbath” time for the unpaid work of life such as paying bills, grocery shopping, and errands. If they practice Sabbath at all, they do so inconsistently, believing they need to first finish all their work or work hard enough to “earn” the right to rest.

Did you recognize yourself in any of the descriptions? Perhaps you’re thinking, Yes, I resonate with some of these characteristics. Or maybe you’re still somewhat skeptical, thinking, That’s just the nature of leadership, I know people who are very unhealthy like you just described but are still effective leaders. While it’s true that none of the characteristics appear to be especially dramatic, these leaders, and the ministries they serve, eventually pay a heavy price for such chronically unhealthy behaviors.


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