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Resistance is Normal

One of my favorite myths about leadership is that leaders get whatever they want.

It literally makes me chuckle as I type it.

Sure, there are times when leaders get what they want and moments where followers just go along with whatever the leader requests. 

But mostly there’s resistance.

Now, “what the leader wants” is inherently fraught — it can bring to mind selfish leaders whose sense of entitlement and superiority lead them to think that everyone around them exists for their ego. For this article, however, I have in mind that what a leader wants is a good vision that springs from godly motives. 

And, even when a leader has a good plan and good heart, there is usually resistance. 

This is why I have to remind myself and the leaders around me of a very important truth: RESISTANCE IS NORMAL.

Why Resistance Is Normal

If you zoom out and think about what leadership is, it becomes obvious why resistance is normal.

Leadership is inherently about change. It says, “We are here but we need to go there.” Leadership is being dissatisfied with the status quo and envisioning a new future. Leadership is inviting people — and even challenging them — to reject what they are familiar with and embark on a journey toward something else.

There is not here.

There is different.

There is new.

There is unknown.

There is change.

That’s why people resist it. Regardless of how awesome there is, the change of it means that some substantial number of people will resist it.

In 1962, Everett Rogers created what has become known as the “diffusion of innovations” theory of change. In it, he proposed five different categories of people (innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards) and a now familiar bell curve to show the rate at which different people adopt change.

Bell curve on adoption of change.

Like any theory, Rogers has those who disagree with him or find his model overly simplistic. But, let’s assume that Rogers is relatively correct. 

If this curve somewhat represents reality, that means that even if you make the best change, roll it out in the best possible way, and communicate it with the greatest clarity, passion, and skill — at most you will have only 16% of the people you lead join you right away.

And, it means that a perfectly executed change process will still have 16% of people who will resist for a long time or may never come along.

Most people are in the middle — they will come along eventually, but it will take time. And the “time it will take” is another way to say “resistance.” 

Don’t Be So Surprised

One of the great advantages of age and experience is being less surprised than those who are younger or newer. 

I remember being young in ministry and being so surprised at what a black hole ministry was. It felt like the work was never done! How comforting to talk with an older pastor who basically said, “Yeah, that’s true. It’s a job that’s never done. That’s OK.” Phew. The fact that I couldn’t meet every need in ministry didn’t need to be surprising or discouraging.

In the same way, I’m trying to encourage you not to be surprised or discouraged by the resistance you face. It’s part of the deal. Add in the reality of spiritual conflict and there’s no reason to think that resistance wouldn’t be coming.

In his classic work on leadership and change, Failure of Nerve, rabbi and psychologist Edwin Friedman describes this resistance as “sabotage” and says that it’s an inherent part of leadership: 

The important thing to remember about the phenomenon of sabotage is that it is a systemic part of leadership—part and parcel of the leadership process. Another way of putting this is that a leader can never assume success because he or she has brought about a change. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful. 

“Sabotage” sounds so strong and violent and conscious. But it’s not. Sabotage is simply resistance — attempting to keep the status quo.

And Friedman says that this resistance is built into the leadership game and must be endured.

How to Endure the Resistance

Resistance is a normal part of leadership. And it must be endured. But how?

  1. Expect resistance on the front end. Part of why resistance is so disorienting for leaders is because we forget to expect it. But if it’s normal — part and parcel of the leadership process — then it shouldn’t catch us off guard.
  1. Set expectations with your team. A leader is rarely leading alone. There’s almost always a team. And the team needs to also come to expect that resistance is part of the process. Often times a team will roll something out, experience some initial resistance and members on the team will begin to freak out. If a leader can help the team understand what’s coming, then it won’t be as disorienting.
  1. Discern between normal resistance and resistance that should change things. One danger of describing resistance as normal is that some leaders will take that as a green light to charge ahead with every bad idea and, when opposition comes, dismiss it as normal. 

But get this: some resistance is normal — it’s the 84% of people who aren’t gung-ho out of the gate, while other resistance is the sign of poor leadership. Sometimes people resist because the idea is bad, the rollout was sloppy, the communication was unclear, the vision was muddled, or the strategy was confusing. 

If good people who are generally on board keep having the same pieces of resistance, it may be a sign that something about the approach needs to change.

  1. Endure with understanding and vision. When people are in the no-man’s-land of change and transition, they need two things from a leader: understanding and vision. They need understanding — a leader who has compassion, listens, demonstrates care, and is sensitive to the difficulty they are having in transition. But they also need vision — a reminder of why there is better than here. 

Forget the understanding, and people will think you don’t care. Forget the vision, and people will think the preferred future isn’t that important.

  1. Stay calm and lead on. When resistance comes, the leader’s true colors emerge. Will you freak out, lash out, and act reactively? Or will you be poised, calm, and respond with wisdom? Many times people who are resisting change are, at a subconscious level, just trying to figure out if things will really still be OK. They are taking their cues from you, leader. If you remain a calm and steady presence, it reassures them that they can trust where you’re going.


Pastor, resistance is a normal part of leadership. Plus, you are leading people toward a biblical vision of Christlikeness — spiritual resistance will come with that. Don’t freak out. Don’t be surprised. Don’t lose heart. Stay calm, keep loving, and keep leading.

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