Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Failed Ego

Written by: on November 16, 2019

Last evening I attended the graduation dinner for a group of students at a school where I am the chaplain. The keynote speaker for evening is currently a principal dancer in the New Zealand National Ballet. What struck me from the moment I met him was how uptight he was; he later confessed he did not enjoy public speaking because in his world a minute and a half performance in ballet would require eighty hours of practice, and on this night he was speaking for much longer with nowhere near that kind of preparation. As he spoke, he wept several times and then, after the event, he was swamped with people congratulating him for speaking so deliciously from the heart. However, what he told the children in his keynote was rather chilling. His pivotal story explained how he had once failed in a competition and how his sister asked if ‘he had done his best?’, to which he said, ‘yes’. Then she asked him, ‘if he had tried his best every day?’ His answer was, ‘no’. He now trains, every day and excels in his profession; but not so much as a person. As we ate dinner, I asked the naive question, ‘what will you do when you eventually fail or fall behind?’ Neither anger nor frustration filled his eyes; instead, I saw fear.

There is something comforting about the consuming, competition-based, production and success-driven life – it feels good, and it feels proper. Yet, a slogan like, ‘be the best you can every day’ is not about remembering who you are as the ‘beloved of God’. Instead, it is about work, production, talent, skill and outcomes; those are the measures. However, what happens when we cannot be as good, or as magnificent as we would like? Who are we when the circumstances of the community, personal health, mental health, economics and politics all conspire against us? What happens to our sense of self when we age or can no longer perform as once before? The answer: our ego’s fail us.[1]

On first blush, it seems that this measure of leadership success (or meaning) is something akin to Edwin Friedman’s self-differentiated leader in his Failure of Nerve,[2] and when compared to Simon Walker’s, Leading Out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership, it would appear to be the case. The former suggests setting ourselves aside from the community in order to see with clarity and to rise above dysfunction, while the latter demands that we must be reliant on the ‘other’.

I do not think there is a conflict between the two. What seems to be important is the leader’s personal identity among the people (Friedman), which then determines the nature of that relationship (Walker). Walker see’s leadership as ‘hospitality’ (undefended personhood) among the people and not from the side-lines.[3] So the question is, is Friedman’s self-differentiation a form of sideline leadership? I think not.

Walker’s hospitality, genuine hospitality, is all about ego and its relinquishment. Friedman is about being at ease with one’s true self. Friedman asks us not to see ourselves through the eyes of everyone else, but rather to let go of ego so we no longer find our purpose in the accolades of others, which is the antithesis of genuine hospitality. To be truly hospitable, you must be differentiated.

In his book, Touching the Holy: Ordinariness, Self Esteem, and Friendship,[4] Robert Wicks writes “holiness is tangible ordinariness.” His point? The more ordinary we become, the less we require from others to bolster our ego needs. We are at ease with God and ourselves. It means we are able to be among all people, celebrating the skills of others on a shared journey and mission. We can be fully present in our roles because we are not threatened by the ‘other’. Thus, it is the undefended and differentiated leader that has the capacity to ask the questions and make declarations that others choose not to. They can ask difficult questions and act according to what is right rather than the expedient or popular. Walker writes:

“Leadership has little to do with making lots of decisions, with getting a great deal done. It is about getting the right things done. As leaders, the crucial quality we need is the courage to stop. The courage to wait and be still. While everyone around is clamouring for a decision, the leader waits until she is confident and clear.”[5]

Over the last few weeks, Friedman and Walker have reminded me of Wicks. Together they unpack a pastoral, psychological and practical view of what Christians call ‘servant leadership’. In doing so, they remind us that a Christian ‘servant’ is not a doormat nor dim-witted. A servant leader is, in fact, differentiated such that they know who they are ‘among’ the people because they do not need to have their own needs met through those people. Consequently, they can celebrate other peoples talents and perspectives with hospitality, thus exercising leadership with integrity, clarity and honesty – and to do so without fear.


[1] {Walker, 2007, #5939} loc 1684ff

[2] {Friedman, 2017, #85198}

[3] {Walker, 2007, #5939} see Babette’s feast loc 1996

[4] {Wicks, 1992, #78} 122

[5] {Walker, 2007, #5939} loc 2135

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

7 responses to “Failed Ego”

  1. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Digby! This is beautiful. I did not have the capacity (or wisdom?) this week to unpack more around the connection between Friedman and Walker. I thought of Friedman often while reading this week. You have done a good bit of the work for me. Definitely need the Wick book…

  2. Mario Hood says:

    Prob my fav post from you so far. The more I continue to study this leadership thing the more I keep coming back to how we see ourselves as leaders. Meaning what identity have we taken on as leaders that has cause us to not be in the beloved. Competition has replaced Christ for many.

  3. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Spoken like a true spiritual leader, Digby! It is a wonderful place of freedom to be able to “celebrate other peoples talents and perspectives with hospitality thus leading with integrity, clarity and honesty – and to do so without fear.”

  4. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Like the others, I especially loved the summation of your post, that is, the essence of undefended or hospitable leadership, celebrating others freely because one is not leading out of fear. I am not familiar with Wick but loved how you wove Friedman and Walker together. I appreciate your thoughtful reflections and how you communicate your realized truths to others. Continue to lead out of freedom, Friend.

  5. Mary Mims says:

    Great post, Digby. I hope to grow to being the type of leader you mention in your final statement, knowing that I am ‘among’ the people, not needing to have my needs met through them. I find this easy to do with children, but a I need to grow a bit more with adults. Thanks for the insight!

  6. John Muhanji says:

    Thank you, Digby, as usual, you bring something of humor connecting the readings we have had so far. I am touched by the way you followed this young actor and asked if he will ever fail or fall behind. What you saw was fear in his eyes. Its the last thing he has ever accepted but he is committed to success at the level he is now. You were trying to bring the backstage part of his life he does not wish to think about as he spent so much time just to present a one and a half minutes presentation. Many of us are like that and when confronted with such reality you are left blank and fear grips one. Thank you for your great sharing brother.

Leave a Reply