Dan Allender brings an interesting perspective on leadership from the standpoint of both a business organization and a church/Christian ministry in his book “Leading with a Limp.” Most intriguing is the brutal honesty he brings to the cost of leadership. Decision is appropriately equated with death, as each choice cuts off more than just opportunity cost, but also the hopes and dreams of someone on the team. He strips away all the superficial ego-stroking glorious power misconceptions that often come with being a leader and reveals the grim realities of crisis, complexity, betrayal, loneliness, and weariness. Allender's response to this dark side of leadership seems counter intuitive at first. Instead of basing your leadership on your strengths and gifts, to embrace vulnerability and lead out of your weaknesses and failures. (Click "Read More" for full review)
Allender's radical idea originates in 2 Corinthians 12, equating a leader's weaknesses to Paul's “thorn in the flesh” which kept him from becoming conceited and allowed for Christ's power to rest on him. This idea is expounded upon in the life of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, whose life of deception literally resulted in a limp from God that marked his transition to the true leader who would go on to found the nation of Israel.
Thus the best leaders are those who don't want to take the reigns, individuals he defines as “reluctant leaders.” These are former leaders who know the true cost of leadership and thus rarely seek positions of power. They understand the paradox as revealed by Jesus Christ that those who seek their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake will find it. As a result, they are less susceptible to the three temptations that destroy leaders: power, pride and ambition. They've personally experienced (or been the perpetrator of) hoarding and the misuse power to build personal kingdoms. So they give away any power they have almost as quickly as they receive it to empower those around them and create a system of checks and balances. Reluctant leaders have seen the naked truth behind the mask of pride and defuse its yearning for self-worship and its systemic affect on colleagues. They acknowledge that unchecked ambition is a parasite always demanding more regardless the cost to oneself or others, Instead they seek to be surpassed, or replaced (through succession planning, etc.), and be the shoulders that future generations stand on. Allender describes reluctant leaders as the leaders who are true to themselves and honest with those they serve. They simultaneously seem themselves as the hero and the fool of the organization, the saint and the felon of the ministry, a living dichotomy equally prone to deceive as they are to tell the truth, manipulate as they are to bless, and cower as they are to be bold.
Unfortunately, reluctant leaders can be difficult to find because they know their true colors. They often just find themselves holding the reigns in the ultimate case of bait and switch, thrust back into a position of leadership during a crisis, or gently drawn back to solve discontent and carry out a vision.
Almost inconspicuously, the book challenges leaders to view their organization or ministry like Jesus Christ's upside down kingdom – where the “first will be last and the last will be first,” where God incarnate took the roll of a servant to wash the feet of his followers, and where God humbled himself to die a criminal's death on a cross to grant salvation to the entire undeserving vile lot of mankind. In the upside down organization or ministry, the top leader is called to the bottom and to acknowledge themselves, as Paul did in his letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 2:15), as the “chief of sinners” compared everyone else they serve with. Seeing yourself as the “chief of sinners” continues Allender's goal to unveil that leadership at its core is all about character. Character of the leader themselves and those who surround them. If one's character is immature, the more enticed they will be to solve problems by removing freedoms from others and becoming more and more authoritarian. Allender uses the bible as the benchmark to measure character growth by the degree that we love God and others, recognize gratitude and awe, and accept being forgiven as the greatest gift.
This growth of character requires leaders to embrace vulnerability by being honest with their personal “limp,” their past failures and current struggles. Unfortunately, this level of honesty doesn't come without its drawbacks. It can empower your opponents who may use your words against you to try to control or dismiss you. At the same time, your honesty prevents your silence from being used against you (“silence is consent”), and raises the bar for others in leadership. Admitting your failures invites others to examine their own weaknesses and breaks down the barriers, the false assumptions, and the unrealistic expectations thrust upon leaders. With your weaknesses and failures exposed for all to see, your leadership is forced to embrace the gospel and its message of love and forgiveness. This paradoxical paradigm creates a powerful tension for the leader to lead out of, balancing between arrogance and despair.
Allender brings all the concepts of being a reluctant leader operating vulnerably through the honesty of their greatest failures and weaknesses to a simple, and nearly cliché, point. Lead like Jesus. However, leading like Jesus means more than simply asking “What Would Jesus Do?” (WWJD), it means each day becoming more and more like Jesus through your relationship with him. It means to strive to take on the three roles of King, Priest and Prophet, that Jesus perfectly fulfilled. The role of King to build infrastructure and make decision. The role of priest to answer the critical questions of “what is our identity?,” “where are we from?,” and “where are we going?.” The role of prophet to be the representative of discipline and call the organization back as it strays from its moorings and its calling.
Allender's insights on leadership in a fallen world fit nicely within the “already/not yet” paradox of the Kingdom of God that Jesus Christ announced. It opens our eyes to the truth, the reality of who we are due to the effects of sin. Then to accept what we see and turn to find our strength, strength to lead admirably, in its original and ultimate source, Jesus Christ.