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May 28, 2008

Armor at the Beach

I don't play poker, but maybe I should. I've got the face for it.

I developed my "poker face" early in life, but my leadership roles have helped me to perfect it. My ability to keep my emotions off my face - and to maintain a steady exterior - has seen me though many sticky situations. Like any skill, this is a tool I can use for good. My emotional control has granted me time to cool off when I otherwise might have blown up at someone. It has kept me from exposing weaknesses to people who might have exploited them to hurt me or my employer. It has helped me inspire in others a sense of confidence they might not otherwise have felt.

But in other ways, exercising this skill is like wearing armor at the beach: it does more harm than good. It protects me from threats that don't exist. It prevents me from enjoying some of life's greatest gifts. It makes me feel unknown and unaccepted. It actually becomes a liability. Sure, the poker face protects me from the vulnerability of letting others know when I feel overwhelmed, inadequate, confused, or simply sad. But it also keeps me from the normalizing discovery that others feel the same way. And it keeps me from showing when I'm happy, excited, and grateful.

The ultimate effect of such armor is that it keeps other people at a distance. And as a leader, it keeps me from communicating to others just how much they mean to me.

So why am I writing about this in the context of leadership? I mentioned earlier that I developed this emotional control early in life. So the pressure of leadership has not made me this way. But my experiences in leadership have reinforced my feeling that I am not allowed to be weak, needy, or confused. I suspect I'm not the only leader who feels as if she'll be letting people down if she admits that she can't coolly handle everything life throws her way. And perhaps the pressure is especially strong for Christian leaders to act as if we have it all together, we're better people than we are, and we know which direction to go. If this is true, no wonder so many of our heroes fall: we develop the habit of pretending we're something other than what we are. It's frightening, really.

I have come to the realization that I'm tired of wearing this armor all the time, and I'd like to stop. It's as if I have finally sat up on my beach towel (we're back to that armor-on-the-beach metaphor) and realized, "Hey, I'm wearing armor. It's really hot out here and everyone else is having a good time, and I'm sitting here sweating in my armor. I'd really like to go for a swim instead."

Because I realize the armor is necessary, I'm not going to dump it. Instead, I'll keep it around for battle. But I'd like to learn to behave as if I'm at the beach - and not in battle - most of the time. Now, I'm not crazy about running around in my bathing suit, even at the beach. So for the sake of keeping things moving in a positive direction, let's say I'd like to be wearing shorts and a T-shirt and a nice pair of flip-flops, the kind that don't give you blisters on the top of your feet.

So I'm dipping my toes in the water, so to speak. I want to become a more open and authentic person. I'm not talking about turning into a gusher, spewing my emotions all over anyone within earshot. And I'm not talking about falling apart in the face of a challenge. I'm talking about becoming honest with myself and with God about my emotions, my needs, and my weaknesses. Then I can embrace God's grace and his gifts and live - and lead - without shame. And the funny thing is, if I can manage to be more consistently open, resting in the truth of God's grace, I think I might actually become a better leader. After all, who would you rather follow: the girl wearing armor at the beach, or the one who actually could swim? Everyone knows armor sinks.

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Great post, Amy. I can totally relate.

Good words, Amy. Thank you. You actually balanced me a bit more the other way since I need slightly heavier armour. I can swim, but flipflops don't do much for you when you're in battle!

We all have armor, don't we? I've added most of mine in response (OK, reaction) to wounds suffered in battle. Though some of it is the attire of wisdom, most of it is there because I'm really not quite sure I always trust God to protect me.

I am learning that He does. But I have to drop the armor to experience this. Frankly, it can be pretty scary to do this.

Thank you, Amy for your thoughts and insight on wearing armour. I have recently been in battle and forgot to take with me my sword, which really should be kept to hand. If I'd have swung this round a bit more, my battle may have been more effective. So keep your sword with you even when on the beach.

Amy eloquently expressed the fine line between healthy and unhealthy vulnerability. There is definitely a time for a quiet exterior, even when it does not reflect interior experiences. At moments of crisis, the leader does well to offer calmness and stability, both by expression and action. The call to leadership is also a call to self-control and discernment.

The real issue may be the need for honesty, often not a priority in the church world. Much emphasis has been placed on looking good on the exterior, spiritually, socially, emotionally, physically, and financially, and not enough on living integrated and truthful lives.

I often tease my families with young children in my church about how many of them got into the car to come to worship in a state of deep frustration (“how could these kids lose their shoes AGAIN? or “Why can't you help me get them ready?”), but have their “Isn't everything wonderful?” faces on when they walk inside Often church activities or worship times become the places where the masks are on even more firmly than at other places. Here the effective leader, with careful balance, sets the tone for greater authenticity. As a pastor, I do not want my congregation to need to take care of me—that is energy poorly spent. What I do want is for all of us to learn that nothing lies outside the transformational power of the Holy Spirit, and all does well to be brought to the light, rather than kept hidden in the darkness.

...on the other hand I wish I had more of a poker face. I wear my emotions on my sleeve and I am obvious. There are times I cry before starting in on a particularly hard conversation - it's like letting off the pressure before the ordeal begins. I hate it. I feel like such a wimp and a girl when in all other areas of my life I am pretty tough. How to? How do you pull off armor and how do I put some on?

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