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The 5 Courage Killers of Dead Man’s Hill

Last week I likened my “turn around” at Dead Man’s Hill to the experience most congregations and plenty of leaders have with taking on their greatest challenge.

Now I offer the 5 courage killers that any leader, woman or man, needs to know and confront. They’re embedded in who we are. (And they’re adapted from Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky’s book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.)


It’s an unstated social contract that a good leader gets the nod, the smile, the thumbs up from certain people that we’re doing the “right thing.” It was big for me in my early years. But sooner or later, leading your congregation to live out the Mission of God will test this one. You still need to seek counsel, advise, input… no lone ranger stuff…but sometimes we lead because it’s right!  Not because we get the approving smile or nod.


Every congregation and certainly every experienced leader enjoys feeling competent. “This is the way we do things and we know how to do it.” New visions and new directions require new skills. And most are not mastered easily or quickly. It’s a descent into incompetence. And it’s best not done alone.


Ultimately there’s a point where we jump in not knowing if it will work or not. Right? To do nothing invites decline or death. Wise leaders minimize the risk when they can.  They try small experiments. They pilot new paths. Leaders go first. But even after we start there can be long seasons where everyone wrestles with “persist” or “quit” or “try something different”.


I officiated at 25 or 30 funerals in our congregation each year for 25 years. The grief and loss? Always obvious. The grief and loss when we had to leave behind valued memories, ministries, milestones, buildings, programs, deeply held convictions of how our congregation worked? I wasn’t always so aware. I mistook “loss” for lack of commitment, for not buying the new vision. This one alone is a courage killer for most congregations and plenty of leaders.


Every time our congregation weathered a crisis (it seems like we had plenty) or we were pointing toward Dead Man’s Hill, I always made myself more available for the conversations…the hard conversations! Before and after each worship service. In and out of groups. Extra time on the calendar. Listening well. Trying to understand. Learning. Being the non-anxious one in the room. And, I’d like to say that I always loved those conversations. Loved those seasons. Never lost any sleep. Yes…I’d like to say that….

So, you’ve mastered a couple of these already, right?  Well done.  And… thanks for leading with courage!

My guess is that there’s one that’s holding you back more than the others.  And one that holds back most of your leaders from taking on the greatest challenge facing your congregation.

Why not pass this around and ask your leaders:

  1. Which one is your best?
  2. Which one is holding you (and as a result our congregation) back?
  3. Tell them your “best” and “holds you back.”
  4. What do we want to do about it?

This fall 450 leaders will gather in PLI learning communities in the U.S. and just as many internationally to become better leaders so that everyone in and around their congregations can benefit. If it’s time for you to engage the structured experience of significant leadership growth. Take a look at our upcoming learning communities and contact Raechel.

Jock Ficken
Rev. Dr. Jock Ficken

One Response

  1. Greg DeMuth says:

    Best advice I’ve ever gotten when riding up very big hills: go slow, don’t forget to breathe, quitting is not an option.

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