The Enemy of Leadership

As leaders we are often faced with obstacles. These obstacles can be interior or exterior, obvious and subtle. There is one thing though, that kills leadership at its very root that often goes unnoticed. What is this silent killer? It’s sloth.

Most people, myself included for a great many years, associate sloth with laziness. This makes sense. Leaders can’t be lazy, they have to work hard, etc. That isn’t what I mean by sloth though. I want to look to a deeper understanding of sloth, one that reveals the reason why it is considered  a “deadly” sin.

To understand sloth we need to establish one major premises. Unlike fire or water or any other material thing which is exactly all it will be from the moment it exists we as humans have in us a need to grow, to work, at becoming ourselves. We have a calling or purpose above and beyond what we already are. We have strengths to build on and weaknesses to shore up. Most fundamentally though, we have a purpose, a reason for being.

Most leaders grasp this intuitively but not everyone sees it clearly. Mark Twain put it this way, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Some of us have a burning within us to transform the business world. Some of us are drawn to social work. Some of us to education. We all have within us something that resonates as a reason for our being.

You may not have found it yet. That’s ok. Some people don’t until the last years of their lives. But start looking. Think, reflect, and meditate on it. What do you love doing? What fills you will joy and passion and desire? What leaves you fully and deeply satisfied at the end of the day? These are all clues to your purpose.

Once we accept that we have room to grow and become more ourselves, more the person that we are meant to be, we can understand the enemy, sloth. Sloth isn’t just laziness or inactivity. Sloth is opposition to realizing our selfhood, our purpose. The great 20th century philosopher Josef Pieper sums it up, “It (sloth) is not a question of external activity but of the full realization of the self, to which we know we are silently but unmistakably summoned. And not to accept this summons, to respond to it with “no”: this is precisely the essence of sloth.”*

Here then is the subtlety of sloth. We can be busy, working hard, looking to all the world like anything but slothful, and yet be failing our true purpose. Think of the hamster on the wheel, running like mad yet getting nowhere.

The challenge to leadership then lies in whether our work and effort is really towards accomplishing our purpose. Often it is not. Often we work so hard to distract from what we really ought to be doing.

I will give an example in my own life. I recognized months ago a call to write a book. I have hesitated to even start because a book is hard, it’s big, it’s a challenge, and it puts me out there in a way that I have never been. I do not question that it will be good for me and for others. I do not doubt for a moment that in writing this book I will grow. I will most certainly come to know myself better and learn to express what gifts I have in a more profound way.

I don’t mind working, and I don’t mind working hard. It isn’t a question of how hard I work or am I lazy, it is a question of sloth. And I’m afraid I have been slothful. This is the subtle trap that leaders must be wary of and avoid. Because it isn’t about doing things, it about doing the right things.

I have time set aside today to start this book. I have set time to plan and set goals, action steps, and a timeline. I have a reason for being here and I cannot let fear and doubt lead me to sloth. No doubt I will stumble and fall and learn some hard lessons over this process, but I will persist and grow and become more myself.

You have a purpose. This world needs you to be you, to become your best self and to lead though that example. Each of us is important and when we give in to sloth we lose out on ourselves and also the world loses out on the gifts that we bring as well.

I don’t know if Marianne Williamson was consciously thinking about sloth when she wrote the lines below, but they are absolutely right.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other

people won’t feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.”

-Marianne Williamson, Return to Love


So go be yourself.


*From Josef Pieper, An Anthology, pg. 23

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