A leader engages with us where we are at

Welcome to this series on “axioms of leadership and faith”.

My third axiom I would like to introduce is “Leaders engage with us where we are at.

I think we would all agree that an intuitive leader is not afraid of grief, but instead we would surely hope they would be present and walk through those dark times with us. They would help us find our way through. This sounds exactly like what we would hope for in a good friend, that they would be present if we were to suffer a great loss.

This axiom emerges for us when we look for a leader to meet us in our daily lives.

There are many other emotions besides grief that cause us to retreat instead of being present. Emotions in others or in ourselves such as frustration and alarm, intense pursuit and anxiety, resistance and detachment. It turns out we all have these emotions and they are part of a very important response. That is our defense against vulnerability, a defense against separation too great to bear. There are 2 paths to retreating from these emotions.

The first path to defense is immaturity.

We would expect a 3yo child to be full of frustration when things aren’t working for them, to act out the emotions they feel. There is no defensiveness in this place.

However, as we grow older we start to perceive ourselves from the perspective of others, we start to hide what is inside. The epitome of this is a teenager, hiding what is inside. This defensiveness is normal. It protects the undeveloped will of the teenager. This should melt away a little as we learn we can handle the disappointments in life, that we are resilient and resourceful. However, we do not all grow up as we get older. There are many reasons for this, some of which are not our own fault.

Perhaps imagine now we are an adult, that you have been driving a little slowly on this particular day, and someone comes up behind you, within what feels like a few inches and they honk their horn. It’s really hard not to take it personally, not to feel put out.

Maybe you have been in the shopping line and someone runs their cart into you. It’s hard not to turn around and push back. We feel hurt, offended, we feel uncared for by the other person. We are in a constant struggle with the rest of the world.

This resistance in ourselves is normal, how we react is an indication of our maturity. We are all a little immature until we do the hard work of growing up.

A leader comes along side and makes space for those emotions to be expressed in a safe way.

The second path to defense is our environment.

When we have capacity, we can all turn our defenses on and off. It’s healthy to not share every secret when we engage with a stranger, at school, or at a place of work. Most people have learned that we are not supposed to share everything about ourselves, or for that matter share other people’s secrets.

Unfortunately, our culture sometimes communicates that anything hidden must be exposed. We gossip about others, and sometimes we are expected to share all our own secrets as well. This is not healthy at all, even with those who love us. The defenses are there to allow us to survive in a wounding world.

An intuitive leader never goes directly into dismantling the defenses. When appropriate, they always approach from another direction with the intent to only soften the defenses just a little. For maturation to unfold, we need a little defendedness and a little vulnerability all in appropriate proportions.

What are some other ways our culture misunderstands defense?

I remember years ago sin was explained to me as an undesirable behavior. This seemed logical, we can choose to do things that are good, and choose to not do things that hurt others. I think many of us try to do the right things. Over time however, I noticed myself becoming a little less patient, a little more frustrated and disappointed with others and with my own failures. I tried to be open and honest, confessing and repenting, trying to propel myself into a life of love.

Guess what? It did not work. I realized that I spent a lot of time telling myself, “you shouldn’t be doing this, you should be better.” All it did was make me feel emptier.

What occurred to me was I was not acknowledging who I was, where I was, and trusting that this was okay. I was suppressing the frustration, the disappointment, and the alarm that was moving me. I started to feel nothing at all.

We could be encouraging boys to be tough and stoic. It could be that we rate positivity too highly, responding with “I’m okay” whenever asked how we are. It could be that we have this expectation as to what our behavior needs to be like. It is likely we know of the a “doubting Thomas” in community. At the other end of the spectrum could be “girls are more emotional,” or something we saw in the hippy movement, “If it feels good, do it.”

Either suppressing emotions where we feel flat or empty, or when we find ourselves uncontrollably moved by emotions, both of these are signs of defendedness.

An insightful leader never waits till we reach a level of maturity, or a level of righteousness before they engage with us. But rather they meet us where we really are at. They know how to invite and facilitate the expression of emotions within us, and give us space to find all the perspectives a situation demands.

How would someone know they are defended?

What I’ve noticed is if people can’t really name where they are at, or have to preface it with “I know this sounds bad,” or “I feel like …”, there’s always some defendedness in there. Another sign is all the ways that we distract, dodge, hide and avoid reality.

I remember when I was younger working in Canberra for a local TV station, I felt like I was lost. I responded in defendedness against those lonely feelings of being in a new job, a new city. I become a workaholic, I worked extra hours, I read more books or watched TV till all hours of the night. Anything to avoid where I was really at.

One of the perennial dangers is that we can convince ourselves that just by doing the stuff of serving others, that we are close to ourselves and God. There are many ways we avoid our emotions, and keeping busy or creating change is certainly one of them.

Another indication is when we are always reflecting on the past, reflecting on how “it used to be”. Or if we are visionaries, always thinking about what might be, what we imagine for the future. Strategic planning and developing my five-year vision might never deal with the road that will get me to that destination. Both these things allow us to not deal with what is happening in our lives now.

Why don’t we actually deal with what’s happening in our lives?

When the relationship is not working, when we can’t control what’s happening, there is a very important emotion that moves us, that tells us something is wrong.

This emotion is shame. We are afraid that if people see us where we are really at, if God sees us where we are really at, we will be condemned and rejected.

Just like when God comes to Adam and Eve, they are hiding from Him and each other, and then they refused to reckon with what they’ve done. They just start blaming and hiding and dodging it. They don’t directly deal with what actually happened.

No human relationship is perfect, but an attuned leader, a loving spouse, a loving parent, even God, takes the initiative to invite the unconditional relationship once again. This is always the solution to this shame.

This unconditional invitation is what makes space for us to be saved from our shame.

Being saved is an instinct in us to depend. And we can only depend when we are invited to do so. This is not a learned response; it is not something we train ourselves to do. No amount of practicing spiritual disciplines will ever move us to depend. It is an instinctual response to follow those who lead.

Of course if the invitation is not there, we take matters into our own hands. This too is an instinct. We either depend, or we take the lead and tell others how to care for us. A child, a student, an employee taking the lead is always a recipe for disaster, not of their own making, but of the lack of leadership offered.

For those of you who are leaders, who have taken on this responsibility, how are you inviting another’s dependence, how are you taking the lead by being the answer? We don’t have to have the answer, we ourselves giving that invitation is the answer.

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