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Labels and Leaders

“You are stupid”

“You are fat.” price-tag

“She is homely.”

“I am a sinner.”


“Drama Queen”


Names. Labels. Expectations. Most of us would never consider “labeling” someone. Or even if we would in a thoughtless moment, we are “enlightened” enough to know the destructive results of labels.

Soren Kierkegaard said, “Once you label me, you negate me.”

In the 1930s researchers began to look at the effects of labels. Benjamin Whorf advanced the linguistic relativity hypothesis which states that “the words we use to describe what we see aren’t just idle placeholders–they actually determine what we see.”

In an article in Psychology Today, Adam Alter noted that in Russian there are more words for “blue” than we have in English. What you and I (if we are English speakers) would call “blue”, Russian speakers might call “goluboy” (lighter blues) or “siniy” (darker blues). They actually see differences in the shades of blue that we English speakers do not because they have a name or a label for it. (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/alternative-truths/201005/why-its-dangerous-label-people)

Labels allow us not to see the person, but just to see the label. But they also can serve as an excuse. I sin, not because it is a choice. I sin because “I am a sinner.” I will never lose weight because “I am fat.” I cannot learn because “I am stupid.”

My favorite (and oft-repeated) story is from my sophomore year of high school. It was near the end of the school year and near the end of Geometry class. The Geometry instructor (who was also the high school football coach) called each student up to his desk at the front of the room one at a time. His purpose was to make “suggestions” about our future math endeavors. The next year was Algebra 2 first semester and Trigonometry second semester.

I was getting a B in Geometry. I was working an outside job. I was heavily involved in drama. I was heavily involved in our church. I didn’t really care all that much about geometry. (But a “B” is still “Above Average” in most gradebooks.

But when the instructor called me up to his desk, he said, “If you cannot get an A in Geometry, you are too stupid to take any more math. You should be done with math.”

I was math-stupid.

OK. He was the teacher. He knew. I didn’t really care all that much about math and since he “knew”-that I was too “stupid” to take any more math, I never did. I have never taken another math class in my entire life. Not the rest of my high school career. Nothing in college. Nothing in graduate school. I was too stupid. (at least “math stupid”)

Since then I have realized that I am actually pretty good with numbers. It is almost a game between Loretta and I: I can figure math problems in my head faster than she can figure them on the calculator.

(I will admit that I have used it as a crutch with church treasurers. When they get into “finance speak” or present endless financial reports with pages of numbers, I pull out the “math stupid” card and ask them to cut to the chase. Give it to me in small words and simple concepts. Give me a summary sheet. One organization actually has a report they call the “Habig Report” which is a summary sheet on top of the multi-page financial report. I have more than once been thanked by other board members…they didn’t have a clue either.)

Why do I tell you that story. Because again yesterday I was confronted with labels. Except this time it was aimed at a pastor. It didn’t come from an irate parishioner. It didn’t even come in an argument at a board meeting. It came from a coach/consultant.

I was coaching with a pastor who had previously been working with a consultant (Although he called himself a “coach” I hesitate to call him that based on his behavior).

This “consultant” had been brought in to advise the leadership team of the church. He had both publicly and privately told his pastor, “You are not a leader.” That is a common phrase. But it had the same effect on this pastor that my geometry teacher had on me. “I am not a leader. I cannot lead. I cannot get better at leading. I will never be able to lead.”

In our business-crazed church world, that is a damning phrase. If you are “not a leader”, you are not qualified to be a pastor (in many people’s view).

I would propose that that phrase is as damaging as “You are stupid” or “She is such a drama queen.”

It (at a minimum) implied to my client that he was not able to grow in leadership skills.

What might he have said?

“You are not behaving as a leader would.”

“You are not demonstrating good leadership skills.”

“Your leadership skills need work.”

Those phrases at least give hope. Change/improvement is possible.

But as it stood, there was no hope.

The actor Johnny Depp has said, “They stick you with those names, those labels — ‘rebel’ or whatever; whatever they like to use. Because they need a label; they need a name. They need something to put the price tag on the back of.”

In our coaching session we began a dialogue. How had he behaved as a leader in his current situation? (Many times he had.) How had he NOT behaved as a leader in his current situation (at times…critical times…he had not).

The issue was not whether or not he was a leader (a label). The issue was that at critical times he had not behaved as a leader. The label had given him an excuse not to behave as a leader (a behavioral issue) because he “wasn’t a leader” (a being issue). His problem was a behavior issue, not a being issue.

Can he grow in leadership skills? Yes. Will it be hard for him? Yes. Will it take concentrated work and will he make mistakes? Yes. Will he have to decide whether the hard work is worth it to stay in a position of ministry leadership? Yes.

He left not totally convinced. The label had done its work. It had limited him. It had pigeonholed him and there were advantages to living in that pigeonhole.

But he said that he left encouraged. He ended the session at least willing to look at leadership skills and how he could grow in that.

Who have you labeled? How are you limited because of labels? How are you using labels as a convenient excuse not to grow or to do the hard work that is needed for success.

Just a thought….

Coaching, Leadership, Ministry

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