“Clean up your mess!” If you’re a mom, how many times have you said this to your kids? Countless. There are 1,000 Lego pieces all over the living room. There are dirty socks on the stairs. There’s glitter all over kitchen table from the latest art project. Ahhhh!

Have your kids ever argued back when you’ve asked them to clean up their messes? In those moments, have you found yourself saying something like, “I’m not asking you to clean the whole house. Just clean up YOUR mess! Just pick up the Lego pieces and put your socks away. Then you’re done. It’s simple.”

The reason I’m talking about cleaning up Legos and dirty socks is that I think there are some things we can learn about leadership through taking a look at our message to our kids: “Just clean up YOUR mess. Then you’re done.” We have messes to clean up as leaders too. There may be some of you with a disaster zone as an office who need talking to! But, I’m really talking about cleaning up the messes we make with other people.

We have messes to clean up as leaders too.

An interpersonal mess in leadership might look like hurting someone’s feelings with something you said, even if your words were not intended to do so. It might look like making someone feel like they aren’t valued by not considering their idea seriously. It might look like making a decision that goes against the input of a group of staff members. One thing I know about leaders is that more often than not, interpersonal messes that are made are not usually intended to harm. But, they happen.

When interpersonal messes happen in leadership, many people just don’t know what to do. Often times people respond in one of two ways:

  1. Many leaders just want to ignore it and pretend like it didn’t happen. They have too many things to deal with to worry about the hurt feelings other have. They might be responding out of self-preservation. Or, they are scared of conflict and don’t want to face backlash. They might be responding out of fear. In these cases, the leader doesn’t want to clean up their mess.
  2. Many other leaders out there are on the other side of the response spectrum. They see a mess and over-respond to it. This might look like over-apologizing to the point it becomes awkward, taking too much personal responsibility, or overcompensating for their mistake. Usually, their behavior is driven either by guilt (even if the behavior was unintentional) or an overestimation of the amount of damage they’ve done to the other person. They try to “clean the whole house” and don’t know when to be done cleaning up the interpersonal relationship.

Neither one of these responses accomplishes the goal of creating healthy leadership relationships.

I think the responsibility for leaders is simple. Clean up your mess! When someone’s feelings get hurt, someone feels disregarded, there is a clash of opinions or vision, your responsibility is to clean up your mess. That’s it. It’s simple.

Let’s clarify what cleaning up your mess as a leader looks like:

  1. Approaching the mess, rather than avoiding it. You need to deal with things as a leader. Even when you are swamped, you can’t let hurt feelings fester. You need to work to breed a culture of trust and vulnerability on your team to make these interpersonal conversations approachable. You need to make a healthy team a top priority so that you’ll slow down enough to deal with messes.
  2. Do your best to objectively gauge the other person’s level of hurt from the mess. Base this assessment on their words, body language, and behaviors. Watch out for your own tendencies to over-assign or under-assign hurt to others.
  3. Clarify what part of the mess you need to own. If it was an action that was unintended to harm, you still need to own responsibility, but you do not need to beat yourself up for being a bad leader. You are just human. Also, don’t take on other people’s brokenness. This means that if someone is operating out of their own brokenness, you can own what you are responsible for, but not what they are trying to put on you that is unreasonable.
  4. Clean up your mess. If possible, deal with the interpersonal mess immediately when it happens. Apologize, take responsibility, and validate their feelings. Work to correct the part of the situation you were responsible for creating. Stop there.
  5. Rest once you have done your part to clean up the mess. Your job is done. I’m not suggesting that you become insensitive if there has been a major wound that will take time to heal. In those cases you need to be willing to walk through the messiness of relationship repair. But, as a general principle, you need to rest once you have done your part to reconcile. Say no to ongoing guilt. Say no to self-talk that tells you that you’ve failed as a leader. Say no to desires to continue making up for mistake and overcompensating.

We make messes as leaders. Your responsibility is just to clean up your mess! That’s a key to healthy leadership relationships as well as emotional health for you.


Dr. Byers serves as the Executive Director of Clinical Services for Blessing Ranch Ministries, a non profit dedicated to providing transformational soul care for Christian leaders.

As a licensed Psychologist, she provides Professional Counseling Services to Pastors, Missionaries, and other Christian leaders.

While she connects well with all leaders, she has a particular passion for serving women in ministry.

Dr. Byers’ educational experiences include a B.A. in Clinical Counseling and School Psychology from Western State College of Colorado, an M.A. in General Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado, and a PhD. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver.

Featured Image Photo Credit: SoePhotos Flickr via Compfight cc

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