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Gold Fish “Spotty” Photo by Kurt Bubna

Leadership Lessons From A Goldfish

Gold Fish
Gold Fish “Spotty”
Photo by Kurt Bubna


Leadership is always challenging, and leading for years or decades takes its toll. Leadership burnout is more than a risk; it’s a reality for too many.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a family member’s beautiful home that overlooks a gorgeous golf course and watching a goldfish named Spotty. He’s the oldest goldfish I know.

Spotty has lived in this bowl for a long time. Thirteen years, to be exact.

No kidding.

No exaggerations.

Thirteen years in a bowl. (I wonder how many years that is in “goldfish years?”)

Spotty watches everyone who enters his room, that is, into the kitchen, to be precise.

I am unsure if he tracks people because he’s curious or because he knows those tall, strange creatures outside his bowl feed him.

Frankly, I’m unsure if Spotty is a he or her

But this goldfish got me thinking.

As a retired pastor, I lived in a “fishbowl” of sorts for forty years. My life wasn’t nearly as restrictive as living in a tiny bowl, but just about everyone, everywhere, watched me all the time. And few people truly understand the immense pressures experienced by leaders (both secular and religious) who are almost always in the public eye.

Kurt Speaking
Photo by Kurt Bubna

Here are some realities leaders live with every day: 

  • They are typically held to a much higher standard than the average person and are often brutally blasted when they stumble and fail.
  • Frustratingly, leaders frequently hear people excuse themselves and their poor behavior while they throw stones at leaders for screwing up. By the way, everyone, leader or not, is held to the same biblical moral and relational standards.
  • There is no “higher ethical standard” for those in leadership versus the rest of Christians. When Paul wrote the young leader, Timothy (see 1 Timothy 3), he gave him a list of leadership qualifications. But his list does not let the rest of those who claim to be Christ-followers off any moral hook. And though James said leaders will be judged with greater strictness, that does not mean they are held to a higher moral standard than everyone else. James reminds leaders that because leadership is influence, we must teach accurately and model godliness well, or our discipline will be tougher. But leader or not, everybody is supposed to be like Jesus. Please don’t put any leader on a higher holiness pedestal than you.
  • Leaders might be treated with a measure of respect publicly. However, most leaders are ruthlessly criticized behind closed doors no matter what they do or what decisions they make, and the leader knows it. This scenario makes many of them cautious about whom they can trust.

Perhaps I’ve taken this fishbowl analogy too far.

Perhaps not.

Regardless, I am unsure what Spotty would say about living in his bowl for so many years. Maybe he likes it.

But most leaders would tell you they are lonely at times, afraid of not being fed, and sometimes their environment is cold and filled with dirty water.

Not to mention (but I will), many leaders wonder when they’ll lose the interest of their “fans” and perhaps get flushed down the toilet of rejection someday.

Sure, leaders also get to live in the spotlight. Yep, there are some perks. But the benefits of being at the helm come at a high cost.

Ever wondered why most U.S. Presidents age so rapidly in office?

Agreed. Very few are presidents of anything. But have you ever looked closely at your pastor after a few years and thought, Wow, he’s heavier around the waist than he used to be, thinner on the top of his head, and when did those dark circles under his eyes become permanent?

Okay, here’s another observation about Spotty: Without fresh water, oxygen, sunlight, and good-quality food, Spotty would never have survived so long in his bowl.

Neither will your leader.

A “toilet bowl” disaster is inevitable without quality moments of rest, emotional refreshment, physical activity, and good-quality food for the soul.

One more thing.

Sadly, when people walk away from the Church or, worse, from their faith because a pastor, minister, or priest failed, they reveal that they foolishly put their faith in a person rather than in God. Humans, including all leaders, fail. Always remember, there is only one God and one perfect Person, and your pastor isn’t Him.

So, show your spiritual leader some mercy and grace. When you live in a fishbowl, everybody sees your poop.

Kurt Bubna

Kurt W. Bubna has published seven books, is an internationally recognized blogger, conference and retreat speaker, as well as an experienced life and leadership coach. Bubna has over forty years of experience working with individuals, teams, and a wide variety of business and non-profit organizations.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Cliff Loth

    Thanks Kurt for you’re words from a leaders perspective!!

    1. Kurt Bubna

      Thank YOU for your kindness, support, and love!

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