Who I am on the Inside Matters!
My missionary career began as a 23-year-old new wife and mother with a fresh university degree in hand. My dream to minister overseas came sooner than imagined. While excited to be heading to Jakarta, Indonesia, I lacked confidence that I was prepared for the work ahead. Nothing magically changed on the 36-hour journey between Seattle and my arrival at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. I was still me encountering an uncertain future in an unfamiliar land. Those early years represented a wilderness experience filled with thresholds of faith, new learning, and understanding my call. Dealing with the unrealistic expectations of others, particularly those in leadership, and pressures to become something I was not, were my biggest challenges. It was the beginning of knowing myself and discovering the important role character plays in leadership.
Leading out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership, by Simon P. Walker, is a book I would have devoured had it been written in 1986. I learned by doing, making mistakes, and being present to God. Though painful, my character was and is still forming. There is no end date on character-building. Walker’s words resonate, “Leadership is about who you are, not what you know or what skills you have.” My lack of confidence became fertile ground for God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness to take root in my soul. Trusting God was not difficult. Learning to trust myself in an unfamiliar environment took time. Trusting those in leadership was a challenge. I came to believe that trust is earned. However, Simon Walker’s concept of the front and backstage of a leader’s life challenges me to consider how my lack of trust in others has contributed to protecting myself and hindered my leadership capabilities.
Walker writes, “Leadership is about trust and it is about power.” Walker placing trust first is significant. Like grace before truth (John 1:17) and mercy over judgment (James 2:13). In scripture, great leaders went through significant wilderness experiences where faithfulness through hardship shaped their call to leadership later in life. Moses, Joseph, and John the Baptist come to mind. They learned to trust God and developed the character needed to lead well. In terms of leadership, I believe trust and character should come before the exercise of power. Power is something I choose to give to another because they have proven to be trustworthy. We all know the devastation of broken relationships. Trust is broken through abandonment, betrayal, lies, and secret behaviors. As a counselor, I know the only way to restore trust is a commitment to rigorous honesty, establishing safety and boundaries, and consistent changed behavior over time. When it comes to leadership and followership the same principles apply. It starts with me and my continued commitment to attend to my backstage, invite others in, and embrace safe authentic relationships in which trust can be restored.
I did not entirely disagree when Edwin Friedman wrote, “The focus on empathy rather than responsibility has contributed to a major misorientation in our society about the nature of what is toxic to life.” Together empathy and responsibility make for good accountability in leadership. Friedman’s statement and Walker’s concept of the front and backstage of a leader’s life present an invitation to consider the congruency of my life and how I lead. My backstage will either support or undermine my front stage. Walker states, “The front and backstage are always connected.”
Thinking back to my early days in Jakarta, my lack of confidence and quiet nature caused others to question my calling. I didn’t have much of a “front stage” presence. About a decade in, someone remarked that it must be tough “sitting on the shelf” while others were busy with ministry. The comment was not ill-intended. I did not consider myself set aside. Character and skill were forming as I was faithful to God’s call “backstage.” I was encouraged by Eve Poole’s insights when she questioned confidence as a main goal for leaders. She believes character is a better goal. “Character protects your future ability to lead because it is the very thing that will save you when everything else is stripped away.” I have found this personally to be true. Confidence in one’s abilities and skills can give others a false perception of power. It is the character quality of being trustworthy that enhances the knowledge and skill one possesses, regardless of the outcome.
Having my call questioned was character-building. I learned about myself and who God was calling me to be. A leadership mentor or a safe spiritual friend to help me encounter the new and overwhelming threshold spaces of ministry and family-life would have been welcomed. Walker identified a leader as, “…a guide between the known and the unknown.” I am grateful for those who eventually came alongside me. The heart of my NPO is about addressing that need for others. Walker writes of good leaders, “A leader leads people from where they are currently to another place, at first unknown to them and can only be imagined.” Leaders are masters of threshold spaces. They lead others into the unknown with skill and awareness that the journey is hard yet filled with hope. Character is an essential threshold space. It is important to me that what I am presenting on the outside matches what is true on the inside. Who I am on the inside matters to God and those I lead. Character, trust, and letting others into my backstage are solid foundations for leadership.
 Simon P. Walker, Leading out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership, (London, UK: Piquant Edition Ltd. 2007), 5.
 Walker, Leading out of Who You Are, 25.
 Ibid., 5.
 Edwin Friedman, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 1999), 143.
 Walker, Leading out of Who You Are, 28.
 Eve Poole, Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership. (London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), 47.
 Walker, Leading out of Who You Are, 6.
 Jan F. H. Meyer, and Ray Land., eds. Overcoming Student Barrier to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. (London, UK: Routledge, 2012), 3. https://georgefox.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9780203966273
4 responses to “Who I am on the Inside Matters!”
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“Having my call questioned was character-building.” Just this statement speaks volumes as to your ability to be a self-differentiated leader. I catch glimpses through your posts of the deep inner work you have allowed the Holy Spirit to do through the years. I am curious, as you have navigated much change and have contemplated your own leadership in the midst of much transition, what would you now say to your younger self in those younger years?
Esther, I have been thinking about your question since you posted it. The biggest thing I would tell my younger self is to use my voice more. I think had an unwritten rule that if I had to say something more than 2-3 times I would just let it go. I would tell myself to ask more questions, vocalize my needs and observations more readily, and speak up more. In general, I would trust my gut instincts. When reading Kahneman’s book, I was starting to wonder if I hadn’t shut down some of my System 1 thinking and how that might have been a mistake. Not that I trust every thought that comes into my head! But… looking back my gut and emotional instincts were often spot on. I was sort of talked out of my perceptions a bit. If that makes sense? I wonder if it had to do with not being fully fluent in any of the languages made me more perceptive to nonverbal clues. I couldn’t always understand every word that was being spoken, but I was observing a great deal of non-verbal communication to fill in the gaps.
Walker mentioned that leaders may hold unacknowledged power in systems. I have some rather funny stories about what young mothers in Indonesia observed in me that they assumed was Christian and started copying me. I had no idea that anyone was watching. I didn’t know that what I was doing was culturally so different.
As I read your post and heard the person question your call and ask you what it feels like to be on the shelf, I felt a fierce protection rise up for you! How could someone be so blind as to not see your depth and beauty and character? Once I lowered the emotional volume I could finish your post with grace:). I am so grateful for your 28 years as a missionary and your 35 plus years of staying married and your however many years of committing to the long haul as a mother and grandmother. You are the kind of person I would want as a spiritual leader and counselor. I am not saying that someone who has experienced divorce or broken commitments doesn’t have the character, they do! However, what I read in your story beckons me to shout to you: Way to go! Live your life fully and with confidence! What God has worked out in your backstage he is now bringing to the front stage for others to see the Light of Christ in your one, precious life. Thanks for your post!
Thank you for your kind words. It is only recently that anyone but my husband and a close friend knew about my struggles in those early days. I can honestly say that having my call questioned helped me to lean into it even when others didn’t understand or take the time to ask and listen to my heart. There was something very unshakeable growing inside me that I believe was simply a gift from God during a time in my life when everything felt shaky and uncertain. I don’t go looking for hardships but they have been good tools for building character and a deeper experience of God’s love for me and others.
Walker’s book has been very helpful to me personally. I especially loved the insight of the following quote, “…a leader enables others to identify and embrace their own vocations. This is helping someone else to come to understand what their unique and specific calling in the world may involve.” (p. 158) I love to see the unique call of others emerge. It’s like mining for gold and it’s amazing to witness.