Caring for Leaders, Part One

This week on the podcast, Dan Allender is joined by Abby Wong-Heffter, a therapist and member of the Teaching Staff at The Allender Center, to dive into a new series about the challenges of leadership. Whether you’re leading a 2,000-member church, or you simply hold a level of influence in your family or neighborhood, we all know some experience of both influencing others and being led by others. Abby and Dan invite us to consider how to care for the leaders in our lives—including ourselves.

Dan: “Every person listening to this podcast has influence in somebody’s life in some form. […] And every leader needs care. That’s just such an inscrutably obvious point.”

Abby: “It requires you knowing you have need. It requires you to give up some idolatry—that is, the idea that somehow you can do it all.”

The different directions of care in leadership—caring for others, caring for ourselves, and receiving care as we lead—are intimately connected. This might seem obvious theoretically, but most of us are probably all too familiar with the story of leaders who constantly give of themselves for others, without being able to receive care at the same time—a fundamental recipe for burnout.

It requires you to give up some idolatry—that is, the idea that somehow you can do it all.

Dan: “We need to open the door to what it means to be loved, and to love oneself, in order to be able to love others. It’s an intersection: the more you love others, the more there is the potential of being able to care for and address yourself. But unfortunately in our world, many, many leaders end up caring for others infinitely more than they allow themselves to care for themselves, or to be cared for by others.”

Abby and Dan reflect on how we set our leaders up to not have room to care for themselves, or to not feel safe in admitting when they need help. This fosters a host of potentially harmful dynamics, including the twin tendencies to idealize or scapegoat, and the reality that most people only know certain aspects of their leaders and make assumptions about who they are as a whole. When the often inevitable burnout or scandal occurs, assumptions based in idealization might quickly give way to de-idealization; one minute the leader is on a pedestal, the next their name is being dragged through the mud. Dan compares it to Paul’s experience in 2 Corinthians 4, of feeling pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. And for many of you, most of this is likely unsurprising, which raises the question: Why do we stay in the work?

Abby: “Here’s what I imagine is true for most of us: We didn’t seek out being leaders. We sought out the thing that we feel talent or gift in, or that makes us feel really alive. I didn’t seek to be a leader, I sought to be a teacher around trauma and abuse, and it ended up placing me in a position of leadership.”

Dan: “The best leaders I know are highly ambivalent. […] You have passions and you have gifts, and as you utilize them, you end up almost being cornered, put into a position you didn’t ask for and at one level don’t want, but nonetheless can’t entirely depart from.”

This brings us into the realm of calling, the sense of being part of something bigger and greater than us as individuals—no matter how influential we are. With that in mind, Dan reminds us of the rest of that 2 Corinthians passage: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Dan: “He’s talking about the reality of the intersection of death and resurrection. And that intersection is going to be more accentuated and more extreme as a leader. […] Will you admit to the real extremity of every role of leadership? Whether you’re a senior pastor of a church of 2,000, or a coach of eight-year-olds playing soccer: you are in for it. I don’t care how well you do what you do, there are going to be internal, relational, physical, heart consequences. So just to be able to say: you need care.”

Learn More

In this episode, Dan identifies some of the common threads he identified in researching and writing Leading with a Limp, including crises, betrayals, conflicts, isolation, and exhaustion, that so many leaders know all too well. For more, you can order Leading with a Limp through our store.