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March 16, 2007

Picture-Perfect Leadership

A leader's life can be lonely. Whether we get paid to lead or not, our role as influencers sets us apart. For better or worse, there is a distance between us and those we supervise. And it is a gap that can dictate everything from our circle of friends, whether or not we seek marital counseling in the same town, to a higher (maybe even impossible) standard of behavior for our children.

Some would challenge the idea that leaders have to be "other." They ask, "Aren't the best leaders those who lead out of their ordinary lives?" Citing the Mother Teresas and Gandhis of the world, they argue that the strongest influence is primarily by example. When leaders can be exactly who they are, that's their power.

Certainly, leadership as a concept has been "humanized" in the past decade. After the Enrons, Adelphias, Martha Stewart, Hewlett Packard, and countless other corporate debacles, people expect those who guide businesses and organizations to be the real thing. No ivory towers. No special treatment. Even Al Gore has to own up to his heating bill and big cars if he's going to talk about global warming. In summary, we want leaders whose lives match their speak, leaders who care about what we care about and who know what it's like to live in the trenches of life. We want leaders who are "one of us."

How heartwarming. How evolved. If there just weren't that long list of exceptions attached. For instance, "Be like us but more physically attractive. Be approachable, but be special - you have to have charisma. Be human, but not so human that you have baggage: addictions, eating disorders, a history of abuse, bouts of depression, parenting failures, financial difficulties, and broken relationships. If you have any of these, you'd better not show them. Put on a good face. Let us imagine that you are above all that. Actually, we may want you to seem like one of us, but when push comes to shove, we want you to be our hero. You have to give us something to believe in."

To be fair, I have encountered organizations and ministries where the concept of the "perfect" leader is intentionally rejected, where there is a lived value of grace that permeates the community. However, I have encountered many organizations and ministries where the contradictory message of "be real but not really" is a crazy-making environment for leaders, both male and female.

What has been your experience as a leader? Have you found yourself in the vice between "leadership as an open book" and "leadership as image "? Have you had to edit, silence, or bury your story in order to have influence in your environment? Conversely, are you able to lead out of an authentic, whole place? If so, what in your organization or ministry has allowed you to do that?

We want to hear you, loud and clear. Really.


This is definitely an interesting topic. I've never been one for image, though I do believe that we should hold ourselves as leaders to a higher standard than others. After all, we need to first be what we are leading someone else to become. Does that mean never sharing our struggles with those we influence? Absolutely not. Sharing our true selves helps us better to relate to those we serve. Does transparency mean that we share every thing? I don't think that is the case either. After all, we need to keep in mind that we are leading all levels of maturity in most cases.

I do agree that a leader's life can be lonely. I heard a speaker talk about the importance of leaders having a "lightning rod" friend who they can go to to get "grounded" again when things get rough, as they always do. I cannot agree more. Iron indeed sharpens iron. Strong leaders need strong friends who can deal with our faults and concerns and set us back upright when we stumble.

In my experience within Corporate America as well as within my church ministry, I have been fortunate enough to work with some "real", authentic, and down-to-earth individuals. It has been a true blessing. So, I feel that I've been able to lead out of an authentic real place.

Thanks for this post. Obviously, from the length of my comment, the subject is near and dear to my heart.

What a fantastic topic! My husband and I pastor a Japanese church in Tokyo, and we live on the first floor of the church building. Needless to say, we could drive ourselves crazy trying to appear to be something that we are not, or we can choose to open our lives authentically to the people we lead. In our ministry, one of our watchwords is honesty. Since it is impossible for us to be perfect in our relationships, we must be honest. Of course, this does not mean revealing everything to everybody, but it requires us to take off our masks and be authentic with each other. And it also requires us to intentionally invite at least one person of the same gender to be the one to whom we reveal everything. Keeping secrets is the root cause of unhealth in our lives. James 5:16 tells us that we need to confess our sins to each other so that we can be healed, which means so that we can appropriate the forgiveness that Jesus bought for us with his own blood.

Here in Japan, the idea of being brutally honest is counter-cultural. People told us that it would be impossible to form small groups where people would be willing to share their true selves, because Japanese people just don't do that kind of thing. Two years later, we have at least 20 of these groups meeting, and they keep on growing and multiplying. There is a hunger for acceptance and authenticity. The secret to these groups is that the leader sets the example of sharing honestly and openly. There is no sense of being over the members or of teaching them. It is just sharing what has taught me or shown me about myself.

As we are honest about ourselves, including our struggles, our hurts, and our bad habits, people are becoming more comfortable to share honestly about themselves with each other. They are excited to apply what the Scripture says, and not just fill their heads with lots of Christian information. They are growing in grace.

We feel confident about what we are doing, since we share the same method Paul used in his New Testament ministry.

It is important for leaders to be authentic--admitting to their own life's difficulties at times. Doing so creates a safe climate for those we are leading to share their own frailties.

Dr. Katie Brazelton gave me a great tip when I took her coach training course: that we should share occasional tidbits about ourselves in order to bond, and we should only share personal issues during sessions if it is something we think will help move our client further along, ie. as in creating an example or showing that we've been where they are. The focus shouldn't become us, however.

I do struggle with my own need for relationship as you have discussed and in social settings or over the phone have gotten more personal with those I'm leading and then questioned if I should have.

As leaders we are to offer hope and be positive motivators. When we share too much we become "peers" rather than "leaders". When we are in a role to "inspire" others, we sure don't want to discourage them with our stuff.

I've intentionally tried to create a separate support network, but I'm still learning how this will all work.

Transparent leadership is an issue that is close to my heart as well. My childhood was spent in the home of a larger-than-life leader who tried to be transparent, but was so burned that he ended up isolating himself from everyone. There is a fine balancing act, to be sure. Neither the total transparency nor isolation were healthy.

I am now on staff at a large church. Before I was hired, it was explained to me that by working here I would be recognized all around town. For awhile I allowed that to frighten me, being careful not to go to the grocery in my gym clothes or out to a movie in a sweatsuit. But not only have I found that tiring, I've also found it unsettling. It doesn't feel right to me that I'm allowing people to view me as someone who is always in church clothes and full make-up.

I had a very humbling experience this week. Our church has a gym and I signed up to take a class called "Boot Camp". I didn't realize when I signed up just how many people I lead would be in that class with me! I found myself drenched in sweat, red-faced, and too out of shape to keep up with the class. When I caught a glimpse of my disheveled self in the mirror, I was horrified. I left the class thinking I would never return again, but I felt God prompting me with a different response. Instead of fleeing from my inadequacy and embarrassment, a real leader would show those she leads that things do not always come easy for her and she has to work very hard too. So, I am going back to that class to sweat and feel inadequate all over again - but I will have a big smile on my face and allow those I lead to see the determination it takes to accomplish my goals.

This a very interesting theme. I´m a missionary in Chile and with my husband we have a cross cultural married life. My husband is a pioneer and starts new christian groups in different places in Chile and now is proyecting to other south american countries. Due to the education of our 3 daughters I almost don´t travel with him. Loneliness is common and other women with similar experiences I scarcely meet. Thank God that I also experienced a missionary call years ago and that the grace of God is so overwhelming, through which I can stand even in times of big incomprehension.
To much openess with local christians here has often caused gossiping or misunderstanding.How to avoid this?

Realistic, with your feet in the ground, not idealistic. Transparent, understanding, silent sometimes, ... hospitable ...

We must live in a glass house - yet at the same time we must hold dear the things that would destroy those whom we serve. It is true - we will share with our lives - and I believe in being REAL.

I will use my shortcomings as an example - only to bring glory to the Father - but if my burdens bring pain or confusion - I find it difficult to be transparent - I do not want to be a burden to those whom I serve.

I now realize that we must share with someone or we will unintentionally become hard toward those whom we serve. We all need accountability partners and they need to be Christian women - who are able to help us carry our burdens. (Who will also straighten us out if we need it!;)

When we sign up for the call - we must - put on the face of victory- even during hard times in our lives - it is not false or pretending - but simply choosing to live by faith and not our feeling.

Miche D.,
I feel for you. I want to urge you to consider that there are other lonely women right around you. It is an epidemic, but we often hide it. We think to admit it is a sign of weakness. But...I have found in my group leadership that when we share our truths others find out they are normal and are helped. It takes one vulnerable enough to share. For instance I acknowledged to my group that I was seeing a doctor because I felt I had some new type of hormonal depression now that I'm in my late 40's. A lady perked up with a sigh of relief - "I'm so glad to hear I'm not the only one..." Others were led to share some of their experiences and in no time we were "bearing one another's burdens". It was a beautiful thing.

As to the gossip, we have to chose our confidantes wisely. We have to become risk takers and resilient otherwise we stay stuck where we are all alone. We have to care less about what others choose to say about us behind our backs and trust that God is our best friend and will vindicate us.

Miche, I feel for you too, and will be praying for you. I too have felt loneliness in ministry. I echo the ones above that say you have to have one or two people outside of your church whom you can trust and talk to, and just "you" around.

I also agree with those who have said that we need to be real and authentic, but we can't tell our parishoners everything. I am honest about my clinical depression, but am I going to go into all the gory details? Umm, no.

My heart nearly broke last week when a young always-been-to-church Christian woman didn't want to tell me she was suicidal for fear her chances for future ministry in our church would be destroyed. When we as leaders "hide" our true selves we discourage others from disclosing their true selves -- and do more harm than good.

I completely understand the word "loneliness" since we serve the Lord on the foreign mission field. When our children graduated from high school and went off to college--one by one--I had no choice but to deal with the pain of the empty-nest syndrome. The Lord has graciously helped me overcome this hurdle through prayer and support. Since we have had no Americans to serve with in over ten years on the mission field, I have learned to reach out to the the ladies and teenagers that live around us. God has given me special friends, and I am thankful for them. We can never have the best of both worlds, but we are living testimonies to our children, our churches, and others for the cause of Christ. By living and doing what God has commanded, we are being blessed--but we don't always see it.
I would recommend that it is good for children to serve and minister with their parents on the mission field. As a family, we did many things together--evangelism, children homes and hospitals. Our children learned much about Christian service. Those experiences will carry precious memories for a life time. Do as much as possible together.

While there are many churches that still expect a certain hypocritical standard to be maintained, there are many other churches leading their congregations into a more truthful place. Like another comment mentioned, we must lead as we hope others will follow, and in that we must be real and be comfortable in our own skin/personality.

I am a missionary living in Ukraine. We have had a seeming mass exodus of missionaries in the last two years. One couple went home to get divorced (which shocked another couple into going home to work on their marriage). My aunt, who was a missionary and churchworker tried to commit suicide. Pressure to "appear perfect" comes from the pit of hell. Encourage to "be perfect" comes from God. And He provides the means to continue being conformed to the image of God. PTL, I can point others to God, not to me!

I never thought God would use someone like me to be leader. So in the beginning I didn't feel the pressure of being a leader. I now struggle with trying not conform to fit others images of what they want from a leader, and every day look to Christ and remember that what ever He see's and wants from me is what He has already prepared in me in advance for this leadership for His good and perfact well. So even though I am NOT perfact nor can not be, HE IS and His will IS. I learned recently that in order to be a good leader I have to be a good follower. I am so beyond blessed to even be in such a privileged place of service to God, that I've come to a place where as long as I have my eyes on HIM, I am humbled and strengthened to be the Leader He has called me to be.

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