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Book Review: Leading With a Limp

Review by Mic Thurber

Leading With a Limp
Dan B. Allender, PhD
Water Books, 2006
With bookstore shelves piled high with books on leadership such as Leading from Your StrengthsThe Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, The One Thing, or most any of John Maxwell’s books on leadership, one could easily get the impression that all you need to do is read their book, put into practice their principles and you are off and running – that now that you really are a leader, you will face each difficult leadership challenge with grace and aplomb, and of course, smashing success.

But what if your leadership stint, particularly pastoral leadership, turns out to not be as easy as following a set of steps that worked for somebody else? In fact, what if you’ve read all the books and done all the right things but your leadership attempts are rejected, resisted, or ineffective? What if your own personal flaws begin to inhibit your ability to lead?

Leading With a Limp will speak to you as few other books if your leadership journey has not been the soaring success you imagined it would be. It has important things to say to those who have put themselves out for their congregations, only to be criticized for it.  It offers essential encouragement for leaders who wonder if they are their own worst enemy, or if God may have had the wrong number when calling them.  Allender addresses the hard questions that that many leadership books shy away from.

Allender wrote this book primarily out of his own experience by what he calls “a reluctant leader” at Mars Hill Seminary, of which he was a founding professor.

Does he understand a pastor’s issues?

 “At a church I once visited in a neighboring town, I heard a man say, ‘I just don’t know why he has to dumb everything down to a point of trying to reach the most immature.’ I was stunned at such a public assault. And then at coffee I heard another saint say, ‘Our pastor always feels like he has to make his sermons so theologically complex. I just wish he would put the cookies on the lower shelf so the rest of us could get it.’

 “I wanted to scream for the pastor of that church. Every week he enters the pulpit with a rope around one arm and another around his leg, and perhaps one around his neck. When he begins his sermon, clusters of his community gather around one rope or another and begin to tug and pull. By the time this pastor finished a half-hour sermon, he has been drawn and quartered, but he still must greet his people at the end of the service. We require our leaders to be perfect – or at least much more perfect than we are – and then we reserve the right to pick them clean like vultures that have patiently waited for the wounded beast to stop twitching.”

Allender goes on to courageously name the dragons pastoral leaders face:
“A good leader will, in time, disappoint everyone. Leadership requires a willingness to not be liked, in fact, a willingness to be hated. But it is impossible to lead people who doubt you and hate you. So the constant tug is to make the decision that is the least offensive to the greatest number and then to align yourself with those who have the most power to sustain your position and reputation in the organization.”

Ouch! Leadership often turns out to be not at all like we thought it would be. When we discover that, we might be tempted to run. But Allender sees potential, even in the running:
 “When we’re reluctant to lead, doubting ourselves and our call, we are ripe for growth as a leader. Likewise, when we hear the call to lead but we run in the opposite direction, God has a way of having us thrown off the boat, swallowed by a large fish, and spit onto the shore where we are to serve. If the situation weren’t so serious, it would be hilarious. God invites us to run and yet to know that He will arrive at our place of flight before we arrive so He can direct our steps yet again.”

Allender is especially helpful to reluctant leaders, reluctant for whatever reason. He addresses the unhealthy ways in which we might respond, and along the way he points us to what it means to be a healthy, even if reluctant leader:
 “Reluctant leaders don’t aspire to hold power; in fact, the avidly work to give it away. They attempt this even as they use power to create a context where power is used fairly, wisely, and with checks and balances. A reluctant leader does not hoard power because doing so creates more pressure and demand…The reluctant leader detoxifies power by empowering others to bring their vision, passion, and gifts to the enterprise. She creates an environment of open debate that honors differences and where no one fears reprisal. In the leadership approach of a reluctant leader, it is a blessing to give away power and a calling to monitor its faithful use.”

Allender touches on so many different leadership issues it’s hard to encapsulate them for a review such as this. But rest assured that if you’ve ever had doubts about being in leadership, felt abused, misunderstood, or maligned because of your efforts, or ever wonder if you are person enough to be a leader in the context in which you serve, there will be something on almost every page of this book for you. It’s not for everyone. But if it speaks to you, it will leave you nourished and encouraged in ways other books on leadership won’t.

Mic Thurber is ministerial director for the Mid-America Union Conference