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

Pain Through the Rabbit Hole

Written by: on October 25, 2019

This post is late as I was leading a retreat that was the completion of an eighteen-month mentoring process with 45 high capacity leaders and I am reflecting as I write. Through experiencing these four days together, I was especially struck by my comrades’ vulnerable stories of adversity they had been encountering. As I listened to each one and witnessed the wrestling, strengthening, and resiliency that was resulting I was reminded particularly of chapter ten in The Rabbit Hole of Leadership. It’s author, Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, boasts an impressive biography that infers he has exhaustive knowledge and experience in leadership, but it was actually this chapter that revealed he is not an academic theorist, but a scholar practitioner. No one writes about adversity as he did without experiencing it.

“One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity.”[1] He describes the story of Job in scripture and characterizes it as one of “endurance, courage, and character, not of bitterness or vindictiveness. Job shows us the importance of not giving up or giving in – even in the darkest of times. He also demonstrates that adversity can be a great educator. Without adversity, we do not really know what we are all about nor do we appreciate the limits of our character.”[2] The author goes on to talk about Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, both heroes and inspiring agents of leadership through adversity. Churchill exhorts us to never, never, never give up or given in to anything “except to convictions of honour and good sense.”[3] Kets de Vries encapsulates his remarks by saying, “Challenges defined them, strengthened them, and brought out the best in their character. Adversity boosted their effectiveness as leaders.”[4]

In the last year I have experienced some of the greatest testing of my character and leadership that I have known and I have walked openly and processed with these 45 leaders to model and teach what I was learning and growing in. Kets de Vries explains that shadowing is a powerfully effective way for people to learn as they experience the life of an executive and organization one leads, both become the classroom. As I met monthly with this group of leaders we engaged a myriad of leadership topics and I was able to discuss real case studies I had lived and led through and they were able dissect the situations and ask any questions and get experiential answers. They encountered the processing I have walked through in my own grief in recent months, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and this week observed my lessons on the other side of it all. The pressure of adversity reveals the truth of who we are, shows us areas of growth to focus on, and gives opportunity for the greatest leadership to be exhibited. I have come to believe obstacles, adversity and suffering are essential to developing healthy, resilient leaders and The Rabbit Hole of Leadership speaks of the same.

As we concluded the retreat today, I was given a stack of cards and notes written by the participants. I have just read these on the plane and reaped the greatest reward I have known in ministry. It was not the lessons of leading and developing organizational culture, structure or systems that impacted them most, it was walking closely with me, observing my life and marriage as my husband and I interacted and shared our 40-year relationship as leaders living together. It was knowing I see each one of them and believe in them, it was a non-anxious presence in tense moments, it was vulnerability and transparency about my weaknesses and struggles as well as my strengths and successes. I commissioned each of them today and felt the depth of Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, “Like a nursing mother caring for her own children, with such affection for you we were happy to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.”[5]

This photo is Kets de Vries with one of my leadership mentors, Frances Hesselbein. She has inspired me through her writing and videos. Her rich experience leading The Girl Scouts and the Peter Drucker Foundation, which later became the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, and her emphases on ethics, diversity and values-based leadership has made her a role model for many. She too is a leader who has known adversity and personal loss. Within two years of taking on the challenge as CEO of The Girl Scouts, Frances experienced the sudden death of her husband after his just being diagnosed with a brain tumor. She has also experienced health challenges since falling face first on a marble floor in 2013 yet her resilience is seen in her response to a colleague announcing his retirement, “You and I do not retire, you and I are called to serve, and we will serve until the pine box lid is closed upon us.”[6] This focus on mission is unquestionable in her tireless pursuits and a challenge when tempted to quit.

There’s pain as one falls through the rabbit hole of leadership, but the process is transformative if we allow it to do its perfect work. Our world is in need of leaders who will become better not bitter, who will exude courage through adversity, and will lead on with grit and grace. There is a cloud of witnesses who have modeled how it is done: Job, Churchill, Mandela, Lincoln, Hesselbein and Kets de Vries. May our names be added to this extraordinary company.


[1] Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, Down the Rabbit Hole of Leadership: Leadership Pathology in Everyday Life (Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature Switzerland AG, 2019), Kindle Loc. 1289.

[2] Ibid., Kindle Loc. 1306.

[3] Ibid., Kindle Loc. 1316.

[4] Ibid., Kindle Loc. 1330.

[5] I Thessalonians 2:7-8 NET

[6] https://www.strategy-business.com/article/00332?gko=0957c


About the Author

Tammy Dunahoo

Tammy is a lover of God, her husband, children and grandchildren. She is the V.P. of U.S. Operations/General Supervisor of The Foursquare Church.

12 responses to “Pain Through the Rabbit Hole”

  1. Tammy, reading your post was a refreshing reminder of the precious lessons I have personally learnt in adversity in the course of doing ministry. I have developed the virtues of patience, resilience and persistence and I have also seen how sharing such experiences with my mentees is such a valuable tool of mentor ship. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Mario Hood says:

    Thanks for sharing Tammy! The whole post was great but this jumped off the screen when you wrote, “ I have come to believe obstacles, adversity and suffering are essential to developing healthy, resilient leaders and The Rabbit Hole of Leadership speaks of the same.” Profound truth here thanks for the reminder.

  3. Jenn Burnett says:

    Oh Tammy how blessed are those leaders! I deeply appreciated that chapter as well. It seems so often the journey of leadership is holding in tension victory and heartache simultaneously. I think of Jays sharing about the ‘successful’ Christian at the dinner party and that pain is always part of the offering. You challenge is well said: “ Our world is in need of leaders who will become better not bitter, who will exude courage through adversity, and will lead on with grit and grace.” What are your best strategies to resist bitterness? What theological perspective might we take? Is it perhaps the process of ‘shaking the dust off’,as we go? Or is there a better image? Bless you mighty spiritual mother of so many!

  4. Mary Mims says:

    Tammy, thank you for the wonderful post. We are so blessed to learn from you and your leadership journey. Thank you for your example and the reminder to press on! Blessings

  5. Karen Rouggly says:

    As others have said, Tammy, I am grateful to be in your circle. I feel inspired by you and your work. Thank you for the ways you’ve paved ahead for so many in the Church and outside of it. Thank you!

  6. Digby Wilkinson says:

    I appreciate your reflections on the mentoring process and the individual responses that came from your time with them. I fully agree with your observation and experiences, but in all honesty, I would never have gleaned the depth of your reflections from Kets de Vries polemical essays in the book. For disclosure purposes, I rarely place much stock in the efficacy of academic leadership research, because the individual writers have rarely experienced the trauma that comes to those who lead complex communities in the long term. Certainly, they are useful at observing patterns and models, alongside common virtues that transcend religious perspectives. I trained with a group of people in the 1980’s and of that group only two of us are left in ministry. Of all the groups four years either side of my year group there is no one left in ministry. All of them left for reasons of stress, mental health, moral misadventure or just being worn out. That I am still here is no testament to being robust or fuelled by faith or better. Sometimes I’m not sure what – providence? perhaps predestination? I’ve lived through the veil of depression and anxiety, I’ve given way to addictions I deluded myself would offer happiness in difficulty. I’ve been arrested and lost my ministry. I’ve been thrown out of a denomination and recovered by another. We faced the demise of our marriage and were dragged through the media. We survived/prevailed. In that period I determined never to return to ministry again and wrote a thesis on the development of the Christian moral mind to understand my own worldview. I left the Baptist to become an Anglican and, two years later, against my own inner judgement returned to the ministry as Priest. I subsequently became the Dean of a Cathedral – it was a position of status, but in that period, like Martyn Percy, I was regularly threatened with court action for bringing change. In it all, I have found the writings of Henri Nouwen, Parker Palmer, Robert Wicks, Marva Dawn, Thomas Merton, Anne Lamott, Barbara Brown Taylor, Joyce Rupp, Richard Rohr, Kathleen Norris, and the likes, to be far more useful in filling out the inner workings of resilience, formation and clarity. I am by no means bitter, but I’m not sure I’m a great deal better – I am however more self-aware and secure. As the energy of youth passes, wisdom is going to have to suffice.

    • Andrea Lathrop says:

      Digby, this response is very much appreciated. I am reminded that there are always reasons why people believe and live like they do. Some aren’t as aware or articulate but our pain and experience do inform our worldview. I feel as if I know you better and understand you a bit better because of what you disclosed. It is precious to me. Thanks.

  7. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Thanks for who you are and how you communicate. You and Gary have modeled and demonstrated true, vulnerable, life-giving leadership to all you have influenced. Thanks so much for walking with us in this cohort sharing both your insights and your wrestlings. My take-away from your post is leaders of the living God must embrace the suffering that comes with it. It is far more challenging and complex than any anecdotal comment or even testimony can capture. It is also “the wall” that forms in us the wisdom and relentless pursuit of the kingdom “until the pine box lid is closed upon us!”

  8. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Tammy – I heard Rebekah Lyons this week say that transparency is being honest about the past and vulnerability is being honest about our present. I thought about that when reading your writing and thinking about what a gift you are to those leaders and me. Truly transformational.

  9. Sean Dean says:

    Thank you Tammy for another great post. I cherish your wisdom and experience. This post truly adds to a list of wonderful lessons that I’ve learned from you.

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