Leading with a Limp

By: Diane Chandler
Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

A few days ago, I sustained an injury to my left foot.  After a freak twist while walking quickly, I found myself collapsed on the floor.

A few rubs and deep breath later, I precariously stood up and took a few fateful steps.  Nothing seemed broken.  So I carried on with my day.  That is …. until about 3:00 p.m. when my foot swelled, and I could no longer ambulate.  On medical advice, I elevated and iced the foot for the rest of the day.  If the situation persisted, I would head to the hospital the following morning for an x-ray.

Fortunately, the next morning, I was able to put pressure on the foot and limp around.  The foot was not broken.  However, the ligaments and muscles were torn.  I’ve been limping around ever since.

Needing to stay off the foot, I started rereading Dan Allender’s book, Leading With a Limp: Turning Your Struggles Into Strengths. (As you might imagine, the title resonated with my current condition!) As the president of Mars Hill Graduate School near Seattle, Allender asserts that when leaders face, name, and deal with their failures they create an environment conducive for others’ growth and productivity.  He identifies a paradox of leading.  The more leaders hide their weaknesses, the more control they impose upon others, which fosters mistrust and cynicism, definitely not a desired outcome.

Allender is not advocating for weepy, weak, or wobbly leadership.  He is calling for leaders to acknowledge their shortcomings in healthy ways in order to foster godly character.  He is calling for leaders to name their failures that are most often caused by fear, narcissism, and addiction. He writes, “Our choice is whether to add to the more acceptable nouns of leadership the adjectives that point out our limp” (p. 139).

Similarly, St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), bishop of Hippo, exemplifies the power of leading with a limp.  His towering work, The Confessions inclusive of thirteen books, was most likely written when he was forty-three, having been a bishop for only two years and a priest for six.  Not only did Augustine confess his sin and shortcomings but he also confessed God’s glory, begging God to enable him to make his confession.

After his well-known conversion in a Milan garden, Augustine realized that Christ freed him from the “whirlpools of vice” that beset him.  Subsequently, he broke from sexual immorality (see Book IV, 2), leaving his mistress and the son he bore through her, only to return to his home in northern Africa.  Soon after, he established the Augustinian monastic order.

However rather than hide his shortcomings, Augustine addressed them and published them for generations of readers.  He was a leader who walked with a limp.

Scripture is replete with examples of those who led with a limp.  Moses killed an Egyptian.  David committed adultery and murder.  Paul allowed for the killing of many in the early church including Stephen.  A personal sense of brokenness has a poignant way of bringing each of us to the throne of grace ~ especially when exercising leadership.  As Allender concludes, the purpose of leading with a limp is the maturing of character, and as such, God can redeem our brokenness.

Do you agree with Allender that it is important for leaders to be appropriately transparent about their weaknesses?  And what cross-cultural contexts might such “leading with a limp” be regarded as inappropriate?

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Diane Chandler
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10 Responses to “Leading with a Limp”

  1. Nick Daniels says:

    Dr. Chandler,

    It is not only important for leaders to be transparent about their weaknesses, it is essential. I recall one of my spiritual fathers who consistently reminds the assembly of “his sin of choice” before Jesus found him. In this way he is able to glorify God. Without being transparent how do we glorify God, for it is in our weaknesses that he makes us strong? As Paul says, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

    I have heard pastors glorify God by telling stories about the weaknesses of others and I have heard pastors glorify God by telling stories about their own weaknesses. The latter is by far the better. It is in this honesty that we are able to connect with one another and ultimately connect with God more fully because we are able to relate to his grace in our own lives. Thanks for your wonderful post Dr. Chandler and I pray that your foot comes to complete healing soon.

    • Diane Chandler Diane Chandler says:

      Nick,

      Years ago, a senior leader told a true story on himself. When the church had ordered and laid new expensive carpet on the floor and platform, he subsequently (and accidentally) spilled something on it, which left a permanent stain. In order to cover it up, he placed a piece of podium furniture over it, so it would not be noticed. He kept that secret from the elders of the church until his conscious could bear it no more. He confessed to not only making the stain but also to covering it up.

      In each of us, there is a disposition to do the same ~ to cover up our failures and to only reveal our successes. Our self-image is intensely fragile and we maintain it at all costs. I think we can all identify.

      When someone who exercises leadership reveals appropriately his/her weakness, there seems to be a reverse reaction from others. Rather than reject them, we conclude that they (like us) are all-too-human, imperfect, and walk with a limp just like we do.

      I appreciate what you conveyed, Nick, about gaining respect for those who tell stories about their own weaknesses. It does indeed raise the credibility quotient of these leaders and fosters greater identification with them.

      (And thanks for your well wishes about my foot. It is healing slowly. I’m learning that a limp is part and parcel of the journey.)

  2. Stephen Hightower says:

    Dr. Chandler,
    I think you (and Allender) hit the nail on the head in emphasizing that leading with a limp is about maturing character. I have seen openness about sinful past that was lacking a maturing factor. It was more of a way of reliving some enjoyable experiences (physically/emotionally) that were spiritually detrimental. Nostalgia for the life left was more evident than sorrow for having dishonored God and a repentant desire that others not fall into the same snares. I want to encourage openness and honesty, confession, and not trying to hide our limps, but I believe there also must be some safeguards on the manner in which this is accomplished. Otherwise we might see a lot more limping.

    • Diane Chandler Diane Chandler says:

      Stephen,

      Thank you for your comments. Yes, I agree that inappropriate exposes of all of our foibles can be more detrimental than uplifting. I’ve been in the company of speakers that seemed to share graphic details of past failures in an effort to purge themselves from them. The brokenness had not yet been fully embraced.

      Sometimes we can share too prematurely. And in some cases, there are situations in which we cannot share at all.

      Sometimes the greatest victories we will ever garner are not known to anyone else but ourselves and God.

      Thanks for balancing the message with a message of moderation blended with appropriateness.

  3. Andrea Dankone-Barna says:

    I keep thinking of the story of Noah and his sons:

    NAS Genesis 9:20 Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. 21 And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. 25 So he said, “Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brothers.” 26 He also said, “Blessed be the LORD, The God of Shem; And let Canaan be his servant. 27 “May God enlarge Japheth, And let him dwell in the tents of Shem; And let Canaan be his servant.”

    When we are transparent about our weaknesses we “uncover our nakedness.”

    The first important question to me is what motivates us in doing so. Is it some kind of carnal, exhibitionist desire or is it prompted by the Holy Spirit? (Noah got drunk of wine and under the influence he uncovered himself. We are called not to get drunk of wine but be filled with the Holy Spirit, to be under His “influence.”)

    It was also interesting to see how the sons of Noah responded to their father’s nakedness. One went and shared it with the first persons he met after discovering his father’s state, who were actually his own brothers. (I guess the population was quite low at that time. :-) ) These two respected their father so much that they went and covered his nakedness without looking. The first one reaped curses, the other two blessings.

    I wonder how many leaders, pastors have been hurt (by gossip, judgmental attitudes etc.) after their transparency even by their own brothers and sisters. Maybe even us, the church, could encourage more openness and honesty if we responded the right way.

  4. Diane Chandler Diane Chandler says:

    Andrea,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. You pose an interesting illustration of Noah’s nakedness being discovered by his sons. The interesting feature about this narrative is that Noah did not intentionally do so. It was, as a consequence of drunkenness, circumstantial. So there seem to be two points that emerge: (1) a leader who willingly exposes weakness and (2) one where his/her weakness is unintentionally exposed to others.

    Your point that church culture traditionally does not give itself to this kind of transparency might come under a discussion of legalism and grace. Within an intentional culture of encouragement and grace (not license), people are far more likely to feel supported, even when they fail and less likely to feel they must hide “nakedness.” Any ministry or organizational culture that fosters learning (even from one’s mistakes) would trump a fear-based culture of fear and punishment.

    Years ago, I heard Pastor Jack Hayford from Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California share about some of his personal struggles. In a room full of 800 ministry leaders, the atmosphere suddenly changed, which created a safe place for all of us to share. When transparency meets God-given authority, it seems to create this kind of trust. And this is exactly what I think you are advocating.

  5. Andrea Dankone-Barna says:

    I see your point, Dr Chandler and completely agree. The leadership style of the leader deeply determines how much transparency can the leader himself have in that given environment. I have experienced this as a mother, teacher, prayer group leader etc. What I sow, I reap. If I sow grace I will reap grace, if I am sensitive, compassionate with the weaknesses of those around me, there is a bigger chance that they will respond to me the same way. Even if sometimes there are some to whom I need to turn the other cheek or go the extra mile with that they also could be set free and feel safe. (My experience is that one tends to have a judging, legalistic attitude if one grew up in, was exposed for a longer time to a judging, legalistic atmosphere. They are many times very hard on themselves too. They perceive our Father as a judge, and don’t understand what His love and loving discipline means. They are hurting people who hurt others. I know, I used to be one of them… )

    I felt there was some kind of connection in the story of Noah between the wine and the Holy Spirit. (Many times we speak about the “wine of the Holy Spirit.) When we are “under the influence” of the Holy Spirit, or in the Spirit, it can happen, that we say, do things which we would “normally” not do anyway. Just like when someone is drunk of wine. Of course while under the influence of wine one tends to do “bad” things, while acting “under the influence” of the Holy Spirit has always positive consequences. Of course it doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit “forces” us to say or do things- we always have a choice to follow and obey or not. Many times choosing His will means saying or doing things that we would not normally say or do, thus bringing death to our old self, our old carnal nature. (I am sure you have had the experience too, when the Holy Spirit had revealed His way and will to you and everything in you screamed, NO, I can’t do it, that’s not me… but you just somehow cannot say NO… you love Him too much… so you obey and do it.) Being transparent of our own weaknesses and struggles is definitely not something what the old, Adamic nature tends to do. It prefers the fig leaves.

    • Diane Chandler Diane Chandler says:

      Andrea,

      You mention the leadership style of the leader determines his/her transparency. I also think that the leader’s personal self-awareness, maturity level, and sense of security likewise inform how transparent one is. In a blog a few weeks ago, I addressed the attachment styles of leaders as secure, anxious/ambivalent, or avoidant. Research continues to reveal the interconnectedness between our attachment history and our security in adulthood as leaders.

      But as you suggest when speaking about the natural disposition to prefer “fig leaves” to truth-telling, I submit that this is a tendency of humanity to cover.

      The challenge for us is to share our struggles in appropriate ways so that others can identify with us, with the qualifying word “appropriate” being primary. This kind of truth-telling on ourselves can indicate a sober sense of self-awareness and humility. What a profound impact this has on others who are looking to the leader as model. We see this in Paul who identified himself as the chief of sinners.

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    • Diane Chandler Diane Chandler says:

      Elroy,

      Glad to have you a part of our blog readership and hope you weigh in on the discussions! ~Diane Chandler