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Finding Gold in Manure By Alec Hill

Sometimes You Have to Dig Deep to Find Gold!

People lose gold wedding rings in various locations – garbage disposals, bathroom sinks, and, yes, toilets. Suffice it to say. It is not a pleasant experience digging through refuse to find the gold. But we do so because the ring is of such great value.

Similarly, leaders are regularly confronted with “workplace manure.” This includes being misunderstood, maligned, labeled incompetent, and imputed with wrong motives. It also involves our mistakes.   

Dealing with such ugly situations, our impulse is to slam and seal the door with cement. But if we do so prematurely, we will fail to learn helpful – even golden – lessons. While indeed not easy to do, digging into messy piles to find nuggets is a pathway to personal and professional growth.

Our Pain is Real

Pain is multiplied by the role we play. For example, a student might be upset with me for a short period when I was a faculty member. But when I became president of a large ministry, whole groups of people became unhappy with me for seasons. I confess to being caught off guard by the magnitude of the shift.

Three examples come to mind. Early in my presidency, a conflict between a senior leader and a director spilled out into the community. I did not handle the situation well, multiplying the harm. For the next 18 months, whenever I interacted with groups of staff, I felt the sting of their disappointment and questioning of my competence.    

A few years later, I fired a member of my team. Due to confidentiality, I could not explain my reasons for doing so. Subsequently, several staff (many of whom I highly esteemed) challenged the ethics of my decision. Was I being unfair? Why was I blind to the leader’s virtues? Did I follow due process?

Finally, when a young Black man was killed by police in Missouri, I missed several opportunities to speak out publicly against the injustice. My omission deeply wounded our staff of color. Some shook their heads and suspected I was just another clueless old White guy. Since I had worked hard on becoming more adept at this area, the criticism hurt.  

There’s Always Something to Learn

In each of these messy situations, my temptation was to flee. My shame and defensiveness were too great. But as I tried to push the bad memories away, I felt the Lord dragging me back to the manure by the nape of the neck.

In these piles of pain, several truths were gleaned. Through lengthy processes of reflection, I learned to:

  • Let my twin idols of competence and reputation die.
  • Listen better to the highly intuitive members of my team.
  • Apologize publicly with greater vulnerability.
  • Do not withhold key information from my board chair.
  • Communicate my concerns early, frequently, and clearly.   
  • Be more courageous and care less about what others think of me.
  • Understand that avoiding short-term discomfort only results in more significant long-term pain for others.  
  • Seek counseling during crises. 

What About You?

Recollect your most painful leadership situation. It may have been a personnel decision, a conflict with a supervisor or peer, a failed initiative, or a mistake you made.   

Following my example above, write down the lessons (both personal and professional) that you’ve learned from the crisis. Researchers at the University of Texas have discovered that the discipline of physically committing truths to writing embeds them deeper into our psyches.    

If we pause and reflect long enough, pain is a great teacher. Our characters can be transformed more through a day of suffering than a month of study. In the Old Testament, Job (who knew quite a bit about this subject) observed:

“He (the Lord) delivers the afflicted by their affliction, and opens their ear by adversity.”

~ Job 36:15)

Instead of running away from manure, we should put on our plastic gloves and dig in. While unpleasant, finding hidden gold is a conduit to both growth and healing.


Alec Hill is president emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He is also the author of Living in Bonus Time: Surviving Cancer, Finding New Purpose.

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