4 Habits of Emotionally Strong Leaders

UPDATED: May 17, 2020
PUBLISHED: September 18, 2017

In my denomination, the congregation elects its pastors. During my pastoral training, my classmates and I repeatedly heard the story of one Joe Johnson, an Ohio pastor who had not gotten a single nay vote in nearly 30 years. This, I interpreted, was the standard by which ministerial greatness was measured.

As a new minister decades ago, I remember sweating over sermons, praying mightily, smiling broadly, dressing impeccably and doing everything within my power to prove my worthiness. I’ll never forget the results of my first ballot. My hands trembled as I received the tally: 31 yes, one no, one abstain. In retrospect, these figures are impressive. But at the time, I saw only that they weren’t Joe Johnson results, and I was crushed. I called my dad.

“I don’t know if I can stay at the church,” I moaned.

“What was the vote?” he asked. When I told him, he laughed and laughed.

“Oh, John, stay,” he said. “I know you; it’s the best vote you’re ever gonna get!”

What a people-pleaser I had been. I realize now that striving for popularity leaves you vulnerable to bad decisions, groupthink and compromised morals. Thank goodness I had the counsel of wise people like my dad, who helped me develop emotional strength.

Related: 10 Signs of a Desperate Leader Through the Eyes of a Pastor

We often think IQ drives success. Sure, good smarts help. But if we look more closely at high-achieving people, we find that emotional intelligence drives their performance. Emotionally strong people circumvent common pitfalls (like people-pleasing) that derail success. Let’s look at a few other mistakes that these leaders avoid:

1. They don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves.

You can’t moan and lead at the same time. That’s why I crafted my 24-hour rule: When life treats me rotten, I indulge in 24 hours of self-pity. I complain. I mope. I drive my poor wife, Margaret, and my inner circle nuts. But then I move on. Because there is nothing worse than being in the company of perpetual bellyachers. Their complaints spread like a virus on a sneeze, infecting those around  them.

Do you know what else is contagious? Optimism. Resilience. But it takes emotional strength to build immunity against grumbling, and you need true leadership to inoculate the rest of an organization. The next time you feel compelled toward self-pity, subject yourself to self-directed tough love instead.

2. They avoid giving away their power.

Average people don’t like to see motivated people achieve. That’s why they try to lure you in to another round when they know you have a 9 a.m. presentation, or make sideways comments about your self-imposed workload, or temper your positive outlook with their negative energy.

Every time you give into them, you relinquish a bit of your power. If you keep letting them get to you, they’ll drain you entirely.

This is probably the hardest lesson I teach. No one wants to bid farewell to friends or distance themselves from colleagues. But as much as healthy relationships nurture dreams, unhealthy ones inhibit them. You might have to quit some friends, but I guarantee you’ll find like-minded companions to take their place.

3. They focus on what they can change, not what they can’t.

“Put a book in your glove compartment,” my dad told me many years ago. “You never know when you’ll get stuck waiting for the train to pass.” To this day, I keep a paperback tucked away in there, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve whipped it out to make use of otherwise idle time.

The alternative, of course, is to curse at the train and rant about the traffic. So many people waste energy fretting about things they can’t control—lost luggage, long lines, other people’s actions.

I think about Will Bowen, an author and minister who founded the Complaint Free World movement. His organization has donated more than 11 million purple bracelets in 106 countries to remind people to silence their complaints, and spin that negative energy into something positive and productive. My favorite quote from him: “Complaining is like bad breath. You notice it when it comes out of somebody else’s mouth, but not your own.”


The next time you feel compelled toward self-pity, subject yourself to self-directed tough love instead.


4. They refuse to repeat mistakes.

What’s that old definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Mentally tough people are self-reflective people. They set aside a portion of each evening to review what transpired during the day. This exercise is not about dwelling on errors, self-chastising or longing for do-overs. Rather, it’s a way to take stock of what went well and how to replicate that success, and then analyzing what didn’t go right and how to prevent similar errors.

I do that every night after dinner. It was a challenging exercise at first, human nature seems to endow us with the power to size up everybody but ourselves. But mentally strong people are truth-seekers, and they recognize that honesty begins within.

The longer I’m in this business and the more I study people and organizations, the more I realize that intellectual intelligence takes you only so far. In fact, the higher up you go, the less your skills and smarts will carry you and the more your success will depend on mental strength. The greatest leaders are self-aware, self-managing, stress-tolerant and possess an emotional elasticity that buoys them under circumstances that would deflate most of their peers.

I’ve had to quit some friends. I’ve learned to stand by my decisions. I practice an internal tough love that keeps me from whining and whimpering about the unfairness of the world. And my dad was right—that near-unanimous vote by the congregation was the closest I’d get to universal approval. But you know what? I’m a better, emotionally stronger leader for it.

Related: 7 Qualities of People With High Emotional Intelligence

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.