Limping Leaders and the Challenges they Face

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Dan Allender’s Leading with a Limp throws up some interesting perspectives on leaders and how they deal with the various challenges of leadership.

He flags five kinds of challenge that a leader has to deal with…

  • Crisis
  • Complexity
  • Betrayal
  • Loneliness
  • Weariness

… suggests that there are several ways that leaders respond to these…

  • Cowardice
  • Rigidity
  • Narcissism
  • Hiding
  • Fatalism

… but that these responses would be more effective:

  • Courage
  • Depth
  • Gratitude
  • Openness
  • Hope.

Some more detail:

Crisis. Allender traces the link between crisis and control: ‘We expect the true leader to subdue the danger with cool, calculated strength.’ However while the goal of control is to get rid of chaos and uncertainty, ‘underneath all efforts to control is a reservoir of fear, and power is an antidote to fear. It keeps the reservoir of fear from reaching flood level.’ Allender goes on to claim that ‘power also freezes the top layer of fear and turns it into the ice of arrogance.’ That’s why controlling leaders are not nearly as confident as they appear to be; ‘underneath the facade the controlling leader is terrified.’

What Allender calls the tipping point to courage (the opposite of the cowardice that is expressed in control) is brokenness. Here is what needs to happen: ‘Every crisis has the effect of revealing something about the leader’s character and inner life.’ So a crisis is not just something external to the leader for the leader to control: it is an opportunity for the leader to address his/her character, specifically, according to Allender, the failure to love.

To be humiliated – that is, to publicly fall off our throne of power – is to stand face to face with the deepest and truest reality of life: We were never meant to have God’s power. We are not God.

Complexity. If cowardice responds to crisis through control, dogmatism expresses itself in rigidity. ‘Rigidity is a refusal to reframe; it is a kind of thinking that limits the range of options and implications.’ Allender is not claiming that any kind of theological belief is necessarily dogmatic, but there are times when a leader becomes locked into a leadership solution and will not consider other ways of seeing. ‘Rigidity always results in an us-versus-them mentality.’ Dogmatism gets used as a way of attempting to avoid complexity.

Just as brokenness is the tipping point to courage, so foolishness is the tipping point to depth. God chooses the weak to subvert our propensity to pride. He inverts human wisdom.

  • A leader-fool is free enough to operate outside tradition and conventional wisdom, but wise enough to take advantage of any voice, no matter its source (including one’s enemies).
  • A leader-fool is unafraid of chaos or confrontation.

If we wish to be leader-fools, we must jump deeply into the unseen and dance with chaos until order appears.

Betrayal. It’s ‘the wound of envy.’

A leader is often a wounded individual who feels drawn to rectify, to amend, the suffering she has endured in the past. It sounds noble, and often is, until new wounds of betrayal are suffered that repeat the original harm. Then the nastiness begins.

Which leads Allender to some thoughts on narcissism. Just as cowardice is evidenced in control and dogmatism expresses itself in rigidity, so narcissism is evidenced in self-absorption. While it spans a spectrum of forms, narcissism involves the following:

  • Lack of interest in the perspectives of others – a failure of curiosity
  • Highly opinionated – a failure of humility
  • Emotionally detached – a failure of care
  • Ruthlessly utilitarian – a failure of honour.

Once again there is a tipping point and once again there is a more positive response. Reluctance is the tipping point to rest. Allender retells the story of Jonah and his self-absorption. Like Jonah, ‘our furious flight from God reveals our petty, dark, self-absorbed cruelty. It can humble us.’

God invites the narcissist to rage or rest. ‘God invites the one who rages to collapse in his arms of love. Rest comes when we can no longer sustain our flight, and we find God waiting for us.’

Reaching the place of rest involves gratitude: ‘when you live and lead with a deep sense of God’s grace, you can’t avoid gratitude.’

We can’t force ourselves to be grateful, but we can stumble into the arms of gratitude when we’re exhausted from our running.

Loneliness. ‘No matter how hard a leader wishes to be a regular person, it is just not possible.’ Hiding – ‘the character flaw of pride’ – becomes the faulty response. The tipping point to openness is honest hunger.

Honest hunger after truth requires us to remain open to everyone, including those with whom we disagree and have conflict.

Even if we have people with whom we do not agree, we still need them – ‘especially those who challenge us to dig deeper and become more human.’

Care is the fruit of an honest community.

If you have someone who will weep with you, delight in the goodness of your glory, and confront you honestly and tenderly about your failures, then you are singularly blessed.

Weariness. There are leaders who thrive on crisis (‘need is energizing’). Stress motivates them to work harder and longer. Some are at their best when they are managing controlled chaos. If fatalism is the wrong response to weariness, interestingly, it is expressed in busyness. While busyness and laziness may seem poles apart, Allender suggests that, in fact, ‘busyness is the moral equivalent of laziness.’ Neither the busy person nor the lazy person is being intentional.

Busyness… is moral laziness because it involves refusing to live with courage and intentionality.

The tipping point is disillusionment and it leads to hope. While crisis and pressure may energise a leader’s activity, ‘they deplete the soul.’ More: ‘Crises can become an addiction, and when a period of relative peace and calm comes, the absence of intensity can lead to boredom and irritation.’

Visionary leaders set out to transform and make a better way. ‘Discontent-driven idealism’ tries to make a better world. But for the leader who is driven by ‘arrogant discontent and narcissistic vision’ reality eventually hits.

One can speak of vision and mission, calling and opportunity until the cows come home, but when the day ends, most people want nothing more demanding than some television and a few uncomplicated laughs.

So, like Moses, the leader faces the death of his dreams. Not that disillusionment is the end of dreaming: it exposes ‘that while we were supposedly serving the kingdom, we somehow became the king, and when we thought we were serving Jesus, we inexplicably made him a servant of our dreams.’

The only real tragedy is the leader who never allows disillusionment to wear him to a nub and expose the godlessness of his busyness.

The best leaders are those who have nothing left to prove. They have experienced both failure – which teaches us not to fear others’ contempt, and success – which teaches us not to trust other’s applause. When neither contempt nor applause have a hold on us, we are ready to ask God what will please him. Which allows for a bold vision and clear focus.

That’s not all there is to the book.

But what do you think?

If you are a leader, do you face these five challenges? How often do you tend to meet them in the negative ways Allender presents? How easy would it be for you to set these down and lean into the challenges in the different ways he suggests?

The imagery of the limp is drawn from the story of Jacob whose story tells us that ‘when God renames us, he also makes each one of us a new person through a redemption that requires brokenness.’

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