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

Who Defends the Leader?

Written by: on April 19, 2021

Simon Walker, in his Undefended Leader Trilogy, argues that being an undefended leader is about leading out of the freedom of having nothing to lose.

Ed Friedman, in A Failure of Nerve, defines the well-differentiated leader as the one who is so clear on her sense of self and goals as well as on her organization’s mission that she is unmoved by the anxiety of others.

Both definitions and descriptions are compelling. To become a liberated leader who leads with conviction and connection and who is moved but not held hostage by the anxiety of others is desirable.

The reality is, leaders so often live with bullseyes on our chests (or backs). We effortlessly become the lightning rods for stakeholders.

In order to survive and thrive, we develop a remarkable capacity for metabolizing the immaturity, expectations, solutionless critiques, and blame of those within our care. In addition to that, while we are leading, we are simultaneously participating in our own personal story (with all of its tragedies and celebrations) as well as those of our families, friends, and neighbors. The collision of all of these realities with all of their joy and pain are experienced, metabolized, processed and/or dismissed, and internalized by leaders, often subconsciously.

The fact of the matter is, regardless of healthy rhythms of self-care, we all hit our breaking points. When we do, who is there to hold us?

Who defends us when we find ourselves defenseless?

Last week, I had the privilege of receiving a call from one of my closest friends. He’s a mainline North American faith leader with significant denominational influence who, like so many, has been navigating his own experience of the COVID19 pandemic, that of his nuclear and extended families, that of his congregation, and that of his denomination. In the past eighteen months, he’s worked hard to partner with his wife in shepherding their kids through the grief of the pandemic. He’s worked hard to partner with his parents in holding a fracturing family together. He’s worked hard with his team to pastor a disorientated and desperate congregation. He’s worked hard to defend his honor through accusations of heresy by a beloved congregant and the knowledge of a loud-but-small campaign to exterminate his leadership.

He called me because he described himself as “a-emotional” and it scared him. In the process of our time together, he confessed that he had felt this way for months and had been congratulating himself as he had chosen to believe “a-emotionalism” was a manifestation of strength. By the conversation’s end, he recognized that it was not strength, but a survival strategy. He realized that, in fact, he was a breath away from complete breakdown and that the natural next step was self-sabotage.

We were both struck with the seriousness of this realization, co-created a plan, and quickly involved his wife and a couple of other trusted leaders int0 the conversation.

My friend is a walking illustration of the undefended leader who, over time, became defenseless. He was self-aware enough to recognize it but didn’t yet understand it. So he called a friend who knows everything about him and loves him anyway.

So who defends us when we find ourselves defenseless?

Friends with history and with whom no stones of our lives are left unturned. More so than elders and therapists, and spiritual directors, and even spouses, these kinds of friends defend us when we find ourselves defenseless.

Do you have these kinds of friends?

About the Author

Jer Swigart

13 responses to “Who Defends the Leader?”

  1. Dylan Branson says:

    I’ve got a group of people from around the world who have been there to support me through my times of defenselessness. When I had my conflict with a previous church and felt beaten and bruised, the people I talked to were there to support me through the wilderness, even when I tried to push them away.

    I think there’s a lot to be said about managing the emotional expectations of leaders. I found myself “a-emotional” for the longest time after having a history of being bullied. I remember making a conscious decision in high school that I wouldn’t show emotions to anyone and it wasn’t until my first year of seminary at Asbury that I realized the effects of that. I remember reading through Peter Scazzero’s The Emotionally Healthy Church and realized how emotionally stunted I was. I talked to my girlfriend at the time – who was a social worker – and said, “I think I’m pretty emotionally stunted.” …to which she responded, “Yup. You are.”

    All of this to say, I don’t think leaders have been given permission – by themselves or those who follow them – to actually feel. It’s seen as weakness, but in reality it’s just human.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks, D, for your honest reflections here. I’m especially struck by the comment, “…even when I tried to push them away.” If you have a minute, would you play that out a bit more for me? I think there’s something significant that lies behind why we are tempted to push away those closest to us when we need them most. Eager to hear your thoughts.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    Bootstrap living is tough- keep it all together and keep it all moving in some direction and don’t let others know you’re about to lose it completely. Feelings can’t be trusted. God is bigger than our feelings.

    I’m not quite sure where the above belief comes from (theology, culture, heritage…likely all?), but the church has convinced generations of followers to buy into the lie that we have to keep our shit together when the shit keeps hitting the fan. We even are extra skilled at shaming people, especially leaders, when they admit their weaknesses, needs, and cry out for help.

    I’m so glad your friend was able to confide in you and was willing to instill other supports for this season. Such a gift.

    I have 2 people that have stayed by my side through the darkest of seasons. I’m pretty sure I would have walked away from my family if they hadn’t been there to listen, help put supports in place, hold my tears, remind me to breathe, and simply be present with me in/through the muck.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Please write the book, Keeping your Shit Together When the Shit Keeps Hitting the Fan. Ideally in Nassim Taleb style. đŸ˜‰

      I’m reminded of Job a bit in your final reflections. If there was one practice or one gift that these two friends offered you in that time, what was it?

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        Bahahahah! I’ll be sure to give you credit for the title inspiration;)

        2 practices- a) persistence- they didn’t let me slip away into the oblivion of darkness and b) they continually reminded me to breathe.

        1 gift- one friend in particular would simply be with me. When I called, she was there. She didn’t try to fix things. She just listened and cried with me. If I asked for help, then she’d interject her thoughts. At times she would simply turn me to face a different direction, causing my perspective to change. Often that was just enough to remind me God was still in the business of wading through shit with God’s people.

        • Jer Swigart says:

          I’d endorse that book!

          Thanks for these. I’m impressed by how much a simple text from one of these friends matters when they know that I’m navigating fatigue, darkness, grief. Their initiative in those moments speaks love and inspired me to keep the portals of my life open to them.

  3. John McLarty says:

    This is an important question. I confess when we were first assigned a book called, “The Undefended Leader,” I thought it would be about the loneliness and isolation that often comes from leadership, not the mindset of “undefended.” (Funny how there can be language barriers even among those who speak English!) Anyway, the example you shared is real across the spectrum and is impacting us in ways far beyond our comprehension. I’m grateful to have a handful of people who can hold those spaces for me and allow me to do the same for them.

  4. Greg Reich says:

    Powerful question! Leaders are often the worse at self care and emotional health. A servant leader can give of themselves to the point that they have little left for themselves. As you point out it is important to have those in your corner to defend and undefended reader.
    It is common for the instructions of a flight attendant to fall on deaf ears. For those who fly often the message is known to well. “Place the oxygen mask on yourself first before aiding those next to you.” Whether undefended or self-differentiated their is a need for self care. Even Jesus took time away to pray and recover.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      I’m reminded here of John McLarty’s Prezi in which he was adamant that he will take all of his vacation…and even more if necessary. My sense is that we need to set a strong precedent for self-care both for ourselves and our families and also for those under our care.

  5. Shawn Cramer says:

    I’m curious to explore more the emotional involvement of a leader, especially giving the finiteness or limitations of our humanity. It would be interesting to map emotional maturity along with the stakes for a given leader. How might we paint a picture of emotional health, appropriate involvement, and the means to discover seasons of respite for the exhausted leader. My BIPOC friend says, “I’m tired of being tired.”

  6. Chris Pollock says:

    The struggle is so human. What more can be done when there is the understanding and acceptance that ‘it is finished’? When one has surrendered to such a cry, ‘it is finished’?

    There’s nothing left to crucify. Then, to live into the resurrection, remembering and living out the ‘it is finished’?

    I don’t really know what to think about that, I do know that I’m thankful for the inspiration for your writing and thoughts.

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