by Ken Idleman
As I write, I’m reflecting on one of the big leadership lessons of our presidential campaign last fall. One of the take-aways for me has been a fresh conviction about the importance of a leader’s spoken words. Now, I know there are times when a leader’s words are intentionally taken out of context to unjustly indict him/her – and that is just not right, besides unfair. But at other times, in our off-script, backstage or private conversations, unguarded speech can become self-indicting. Our words can come back around to haunt us. How many times have you and I heard actual recordings of thoughtless words, spoken by a leader that would, in the future, undermine credibility?
As a local church pastor, I remember an incident in which I learned, the hard way, the importance of “be[ing] quick to hear, slow to speak,” (James 1:19). In a conversation with a middle-aged man, whose wife was exhibiting some extreme behavioral instability and threatening him with divorce, I sympathized, describing her as “occasionally being high maintenance.” Well, he leveraged that intended privately-supportive comment, using my name, in an attempt to shame and humble her. Needless to say, it did not produce the desired outcome. Instead, we were both on the receiving end of her resentment. As I have reflected, what was far worse from my standpoint, as her pastor, was the loss of my opportunity to lead her spiritually. She closed-up and adopted a defensive posture. And although the couple did not divorce, when the husband died recently, he and his wife were still separated.
There is a sobering truth laced into the words of Jesus in Luke 12:3, “Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!”
Of course, the one thing we can do to protect our speech, ensuring that it builds up and does not tear down, is to work “upstream” of our speech, disciplining our inner life. How or what we think/feel about any subject will be exactly what’s reflected in our speech. Again, Jesus said in Matthew 15:18, “… the words you speak come from the heart – that’s what defiles you.”
But our Creator has posted two sentries on either side of your mouth and mine. They are called ears. And, given the speed of sound, the first person to hear what you say will almost always be you. So let’s listen to ourselves, especially when “off-platform.” Let’s take careful spiritual inventory as we speak. If we do, we’ll have nothing for which to apologize and nothing of which to be ashamed in the days ahead.