Hebrews 12:15, Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled

Disappointment is inevitable in life.  This is certainly true in leadership, where managing relationships with people we lead has an increased potential for constantly missed expectations and for hurt.  Because of the increased interaction with others, leadership is a setup for pain.  Sure, being a leader can also be greatly fulfilling, but it would be foolish to think there are no frustrations on the way to that satisfaction.

It should come as no surprise, then, to find that all leaders have horror stories and battle scars from their time as point man.  In every leadership space, from the home to church to business and politics, disappointment dots the landscape.  Why, then, is it very evident that some leaders have been hurt while with others it is not nearly as obvious?  The answer, I believe, lies in our response to the pain.  Not just the immediate response, and not just the response every time we get reminded of the hurt.  I am referring to our choice of what to do with the anger we feel toward those who have hurt or betrayed us.  Those who keep the anger act and become bitter.  And to me that’s what bitterness is – retained anger (I may write later about how anger becomes a habit, almost an addiction).

And this retained anger is especially dangerous for those in roles of leadership.  Leadership, as John Maxwell has often said, is about influence.  That applies in the negative as much as in the positive.  A leader who expresses bitterness, even infrequently, can affect the mood of the team, its performance, its unity.  Over time the effects spread to the point of bringing down morale and profits across the organization.

Bitterness from a parent can deprive a child of confidence and a sense of closeness to mom or dad.  In a church setting it can spawn the sense of, “who’s next?” or “does he talk like that about me when I’m not around?”.

If nothing else, it tells those we lead that we care more about keeping our little world intact than we care about growth.  I have often said that being bitter is akin to wrapping ourselves in thorns, forbidding anyone to get close so that we may protect ourselves.

So what do we do when we sense that we are becoming or have become bitter, that we are keeping anger the way a sponge soaks up water?

I know of two powerful things that make a huge difference.  The first is obvious, to the point that most readers will already have thought of it, I suppose.  That is – let go.  If bitterness is, as I propose, retaining anger, then we would do well to let the anger go.  Typically this also involves forgiveness.  Imagine that holding anger is akin to a child holding a favorite toy – it gives comfort, it is his, it means something to him.  To surrender the toy feels like a sacrifice and may leave him feeling vulnerable.  Now apply those things to anger.  Letting go and forgiving those who hurt us means giving up a comfortable, meaningful possession and will almost certainly leave us vulnerable.  But we must let go to move forward.  Anger is heavy (Solomon called a fool’s wrath “weighty”) and slows us down.

The second step is to exercise contentment.  “I may not be where I would like to be, but I am content to be here with an eye on moving forward.”  Contentment is not complacency.  It is instead happiness in having progressed this far, and excited to keep moving.  Contentment can even swat away anger, pushing it away as a pest.  In Proverbs, Solomon said a man’s discretion defers his anger, tells it to call later, if you will.  And when it calls back, tell it again to call later.  Contentment stiff-arms anger, saying, “Look how good I have it; I have no time for you.”

Doing these two things puts us on a sure path for eliminating bitterness, and prevents it from tainting our influence.

There are certainly more tools for combating and defeating bitterness.  What have you used to keep bitterness from hurting your leadership?