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?