Caring for Leaders, Part Two

This week, Abby Wong-Heffter and Dan Allender continue discussing the complications of leadership, and the essential need to care for leaders—including ourselves. After identifying some of the most common dynamics that might lead to burnout or scandal, Abby and Dan reflect on what it looks like to care for ourselves as leaders, and open ourselves to the care of others. This starts with identifying the ways that, in the absence of good care, we all develop strategies to cope with exhaustion and stress—strategies that so often play into our cycles of addiction and sabotage, like overworking, dissociating through our screens, or self-soothing with alcohol or sugar.

Abby: “I know that I’m overextended when I’m spending quite a bit of time with my finger in that constant scan mode, not taking anything in.”

Dan: “There are many ways that leaders self-soothe that actually do not lead to life and vibrancy, a return into the fold of doing the work with a sense of joy. Those things may help us cope, but in the coping itself it often adds new levels of complications. […] But you’re not only going to have to face addictive realities—I think the thing that’s probably hardest to talk about are the relational consequences.”

Abby and Dan continue wrestling with the categories they named last week, including the twin tendencies to idealize or scapegoat leaders, and the impulse to make assumptions about leaders when we only see certain parts of who they are. When we don’t allow ourselves (or aren’t able) to have a full experience of a person, we often create an object of who we need them to be. We might adore our idealized object, but once there’s a failure or a lack of attunement, we feel a sense of betrayal.

“There are many ways that leaders self-soothe that actually do not lead to life and vibrancy, a return into the fold of doing the work with a sense of joy.”

Abby: “We do with others often what has been lacking, or what we’re wanting, or what we’re angry about from other parts of our lives. And I think a key category is idealization. I want a perfect mother and a perfect father. I want perfect attunement. Often I see the gifting of the leaders around me, you included, where I have wanted you to be my perfect father. So we set people up to try and fill things that aren’t being filled in other aspects of our lives.”

Dan: “We idealize, but we also quickly move to scapegoating. We put leaders in a position that we make them far worse than they likely are, and we make judgments about them and assumptions about them.”

The need to scapegoat often leads to very specific assaults: that you’re a hypocrite, that you are only in this for fame or money, that you don’t really care for the people you lead. In the midst of this, the attempt to create boundaries might be felt as an offense, resulting in hurt, disappointment, judgment, and envy. And envy, particularly, is so crucial in this conversation—both our own envy of other leaders, and our experience of bearing the envy of others. (For more on this, Dan recommends a podcast series on envy that the Ransomed Heart team released earlier this year.)

Abby: “It’s the inverse of the idealization. I’m not getting my needs met.”

Dan: “In so many ways, our anger is unrighteous. And almost all unrighteous anger is a projection, a scapegoating, an effort to make somebody bleed so that my own hurt and disappointment have a resolve in my rage. So if we’re honest, we have to say that oftentimes we set leaders up, in the idealization and then a certain level of satisfaction when they collapse.”

As we continue exploring the dynamics that lead to conflict, burnout, and scandal in leadership, we must confront the devastating reality that so many leaders—including leaders in the Church—get caught up in affairs, pornography addictions, or other forms of sexual harm. Why is it that leaders are so susceptible to this? That—the difficult dynamics of erotic entanglement—is what we’ll be diving into next week.