(Disclaimer: This blog is more of a reflection than critique of MaryKate Morse’ book, Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space and Influence[i]. Thank you, MaryKate, for the opportunity and framework.)
I’ve been asked to serve in leadership positions throughout much of my adult life. In my twenties, I had it going on. I started and led an innovative after school program for high risk kids at 20. I completed my master’s degree at 25, and was hired as the executive director of a small non-profit immediately upon graduation. I was a leader in my church, and my work position afforded me a lot of opportunity. I was on TV, quoted in national magazines, interviewed by famous authors. I was sought out to participate in a city leadership program. I was asked to serve on the board of another non-profit ministry. I was awesome. As one of my colleagues used to refer to me, I was, “Julie Dodge: Social Worker!” (cue hero music). I had what Morse refers to as expert power, because of my education, and role power, because of my title and position. Some might say I also had character power.[ii]
I was also scary. Maybe that’s too strong of a word, but I’m pretty certain that it’s not far off. I remember one of my staff members coming to me, and sharing how our intern was intimidated by me. I brushed it off, thinking this young woman was just too sensitive. The reality was I had a lot of influence. And I was not a bad leader in some ways. In partnership with my local community, I was able to help facilitate some really positive change on behalf of women and sexual assault survivors. I also had a giant blind spot; that “unknown” corner of the Johari window.[iii] I couldn’t see myself. I created a buffer zone around me in which I kept people at a distance emotionally. I was unknown to myself (though I was certain that I had worked through all of my “stuff”) and I was unknown to others. On the one hand, there were people who were literally in awe of me. On the other, I’m pretty certain that there were others who simply kept their distance. One thing was for certain, no one challenged me. I did get a lot of affirmation. And there were those who helped me stand on my pedestal. I believed that I was humble, but I’m pretty sure that I was much more proud.
As I approached 30, God brought a most unlikely friend into my life. She – Tina – had a lot of “issues.” I was “mentoring” her. But there was something about this young woman that was different. She was impressed by all of my accolades, but she was not fooled. I vividly remember sitting with her one day when she looked directly at me and said, “You know you’re full of shit, right?”
What?!?! I was, “Julie Dodge: Social Worker!”
I also knew that she was right. Right – not from a point of self esteem, but from a point of connection and community and belonging. I taught community, yet I practiced independence. I was surrounded by people and friends all the time, yet I was alone emotionally. I was isolated and my status was artificial.
Shortly before I turned 30, I fell off my pedestal. Since I was a child I have struggled with chronic pain, and I still do, but my fierce commitment to doing everything and keeping everything to myself took its toll on my body and I became disabled. I had to quit my job and was on disability for nearly a year. I also entered into a relationship that was unhealthy and not honoring to God. So I left my church, and even though no one knew my whole story, few came looking for me.
I was convinced that I was a failure. Professionally. Emotionally. Socially. Spiritually I was a fraud and a flop. I was convinced that I would never lead again, and that God would never let me lead again in His church. I was so unworthy. But God is very kind. I had two friends who stayed with me through it all. One was Tina, who knew I was full of shit. She also knew more about who I could be than I did. (She remains my dearest friend to this day.)
I don’t know if it was necessary for everything to be stripped away from me at once, but I was pretty well defended. Apart from catastrophe, I may have stayed in the same place indefinitely. Over the course of the next ten years, God started putting me back together. It took a while. It started with Tina, the one I was supposed to be mentoring, who saw my beauty, and my flaws, and stood by me. I went back to work. I started therapy. I found a gracious, accepting church that loved me. And God did some amazing things in my heart.
The healing journey is profound. In my twenties, it was Julie Dodge who did amazing things. In my healing, God allowed me to learn and serve. God allowed me to build a lead a team of twelve into a service division of sixty people. I became intentional about who I hired as leaders on my team: people who were capable, knowledgeable, and I tried to listen to them. I let them lead, because we were better and stronger as a team than with me in the center all of the time. When they came to me about being intimidating, I asked them to share what that looked like. One of the examples is my scary face. I’m told that at times when people approach me and I am working on a project, when I look up my expression communicates something close to, “you should die now.” I began explaining this look to my team members, and telling them that it wasn’t personal; that sometimes it took a few minutes for me to adjust from project mode to person mode. I also made a point of walking through the building where I worked every day to build relationship and make connections with all of my team members. It didn’t work for everyone, but it helped. I also began to be more conscious of how I presented myself to others, including my body language.
Church was a big part of the journey. I started closed off; convinced that if people only knew me, they would not want me around, while at the same time, I longed for connection. God allowed me to build relationships with people who accepted me, who knew my whole story, and still invited me in to their lives. Through them I experienced what God’s love really felt like, though by then I’d been a Christian for over 20 years. I began to soften and become approachable. On that day when I was first asked to help lead worship, I was broken. I wept. This thing that I was certain God would never allow me to do again, He offered freely. Perhaps a bit as Jesus did with the woman who was a “sinner” at Simon’s house, He extended His position and grace to elevate me.
It’s now been almost 20 years since my fall from the pedestal. There is much more to the story and the journey. God has allowed me to enter into positions with role, expert, character and even cultural power. He has taught me about sharing influence, and how to use my power to bring others in to the conversation. As I was reading Morse’s work, I found that I now had words to describe what God had been teaching me. In meetings, when my co-workers were overlooked because they had less role or social influence, I have been able to speak, and then ask them to share their perspectives, because I could see that they had been excluded. In cross-cultural settings, I have learned to use my privilege to create space for others with less privilege to speak, and then to affirm what they share.
Perhaps most importantly, God has allowed me to learn to share myself in social, personal, and intimate spaces. I am known. He has brought others into my life to help me see what I do not see, and extended grace that I might continue to learn. I certainly have not arrived at a place of completion. But I feel like I’m getting closer when a friend or a student asks if they can just hang out at my house, or in my office, because they feel safe there. I’m not quite as scary as I used to be.