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Cat Dish Leadership

Joy and Matthew Steem

Steems November post My first introduction to Anne Lamott was her statement, “I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” There was something about this punky comment that wooed me.

I admired and appreciated her honesty; her lack of pretence made me feel like this was an individual I could share camaraderie with. This is not to say I don’t sometimes sniff about for the dangers of false authenticity: the idol our culture has made of “being authentic" when “keeping it real” can just be another façade. Still though, I can't suspect everybody and Lamott feels like somebody worth listening to, perhaps even a leader of sorts.

I admire her for her truth telling ability: for her willingness to expose her faith, foibles and failures. She articulates the exhausting degree of vulnerability required in giving ourselves to loving and being loved. Her discussions of life drip with gore and hope, and help me see beyond the brute side of mortality. She hints that some interactions and memories and experiences can be processed in so many different ways that we may not be as tied to personal history as it sometimes appears. The food of our souls, like the food of our mouths, can be fermented and stewed or boiled and roasted or chopped and salted. In short, in Anne I hear echoes of something that is flesh and soul affirming. And, the invitation to explore both the heights of Love's radiance and the grass betwixt my toes engages me.

But even with all this, I inwardly tense up a little on the idea of Lamott as leader. A companion on this life's journey? Sure. A leader? I have an uncomfortable time with her informality; her willingness to expose her inward processes and come right out and verbalize her struggles. Perhaps my discomfort is rooted in one idea of what separates leaders from followers.

Several years ago, Christian Century ran a post by Adam J Copeland. In his article, "Why Lead," he suggests that we might do well to reinvigorate our current conceptions of leadership with a bigger emphasis on "followership."  Leaders, then, are faithful followers on the path of love, wisdom, humility and self-sacrifice. For Copeland, leadership is a lot less about accomplishment, power, innovation or public relationship potential; it is about openly and heartfully following the one who is Love. But what does that look like in practical terms?

Henri Nouwen depicts leadership in very personal terms. For him, leading is the ultimate act of vulnerability. He understands the mantle of leadership as one that requires the laying down of one's life: the complete abdication of ego,  individualism, control and power. That is,  "making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life” (In the Name of Jesus)

I wonder if Nouwen's profound insight on leadership has something to do with the feeling one gets in rehabilitation groups. I've briefly glimpsed their power myself, and I've heard others comment on the same phenomenon. Being in the presence of people with such intentional honesty and openness about physical, emotional, social and spiritual struggles has a lasting impact. Pursuing the path of wellness requires honesty, both with others and ourselves. We do not grow when do not examine our hearts, hurts and hopes. A social worker who I am privileged to call my friend has commented on the potential of some workers to fall in love with their clients. The reason? Honing the vocabulary of honesty is deeply attractive. Most of us recognize that we all have proclivities to certain types of destructive behaviors, but not all of us have the courage to examine and voice them and seek guidance and share our hearts with others.

If I understand Nouwen correctly, it is the calling and duty of a leader to bare his or her heart and soul: to be a leader is to lay down facades in the hopes others will find their way to faith through that act of sacrifice. In this perspective, I hope that one day my own followership can mirror a meagre degree of honesty that Lamott has revealed to multitudes.