Leading with a Limp – Book Review

Leading with a Limp
Author: Dan Allender
Publisher: Waterbrook Multnomah
ISBN-13: 978-1578569526

Review by Simon Cozens.

This book is, as far as I am aware, the first book-length treatment of postmodernity and complexity theory as applied to Christian leadership. Hay (2002) examines issues of ‘honesty, integrity, jargon and politics’ in Gen X leadership, but the present book engages more deeply with a postmodern worldview which consciously rejects the assumptions of modernist leadership theory: that the leader is endowed with particular character qualities and their leadership operates out of the strength of these attributes. Instead, Allender sees in Scripture a pattern of unlikely, reluctant, flawed and weak leaders, who by their reluctance and sheer oddity avoid the traps of power, pride and ambition, and concludes that ‘a leader’s wisdom can’t be conventional and still be fully Christian.’ (p. 88)

Allender’s treatment of complexity (chapter 6) is particularly worthy of note and will form the focus of this review.  He sees complexity as arising either through conflicting interpretative grids, ambiguity caused by competing new data, or uncertainty in the future.  This is rather different from the formal systems approach of Stacey (1995) and others, but there are overlaps, particularly in the concept of ‘anxiety’, and it is intriguing that Simpson (2007) refers to ‘reluctant leadership’ as an emergent feature of leading in complex dynamic environments. Allender’s response to the challenge of complexity is an example of what Tiplady  calls ‘space for grace’—accepting the creativity that can arise from chaos as an opportunity for God to speak.

His recipe for not being overwhelmed by complexity and chaos is to give up rigid dogmatism, which he defines as ‘a kind of thinking that limits the range of options and implications’ (p. 85) but instead to take on the mantle of the ‘leaderfool’ (p. 89) who is free to defy tradition and convention. Though Allender does not make this connection, his concept of leader-fools echoes the Orthodox tradition of the salos or fool-in-Christ, who acts as a bearer of the Holy Spirit into a community and who has on the community around him an effect that is life-enhancing…[O]ften deliberately provocative and shocking, he awakens men from complacency and pharisaism…He combines audacity with humility. Because he has renounced everything, he is truly free. (Ware, 1995, p99)

But despite this long tradition, Allender cannot transcend the thinking and style of his generation. While he writes that Christian leaders must avoid ‘conventional wisdom’ to relinquish control and manage complexity, his prescription of avoiding dogmatism and welcoming uncertainty very much is the conventional wisdom of the postmodern world, albeit finding justification in Biblical passages such as 1 Co. 1:20-27—just as, in a different generation but working from the same Bible, Prime (1964, p50) argues that a leader must always know ‘what has to be done, when a task should be done and how the task should be done.’ The distinction between complexity and control could not be more obvious; both authors are products of their age, reading their Bible culturally as much as they are reading their culture biblically. Allender is writing during a liminal period of Western culture, when the ‘control’ dimension of leadership is still dominant but becoming questioned; perhaps we will see that in the next generation this point no longer needs to be made because our normative picture of a leader will be one who is a mystical shaper of chaos.

This is not to demean the insights that Allender brings to Christian leadership for this generation, which, as Simpson reminds us, is facing the task of leading into complexity and which also distrusts authoritative, control-based leadership.

His honest case-studies throughout the book—which unfortunately sometimes read rather more as an apologia for difficult and unpopular decisions taken in leadership at Mars Hill Graduate School—and his informal and personal style reflects his command of these generational cultural dynamics, and his focus on the character and personal inner life of the leader is reminiscent of Barton (2008).

Allender goes beyond Barton, however; where Barton sees the brokenness and imperfection of a leader as a reminder to pause and be aware of potential repercussions, Allender sees brokenness, failure and uncertainty as opportunities for God to work. His aim is not merely to subvert but to emphatically overturn the secular understandings of power, strength and ability, and to revel in the paradox of God’s economy. While emphatically a product of its generation, this book provides practical and spiritual insight to leaders operating in complex ministry scenarios.

Barton, R. (2008). Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Downers Grove: IVP.
Hay, R. (2002). Top dog, in R. Tiplady (ed.), Postmission, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, chapter 4, pp. 44–53.
Prime, D. (1964). A Christian’s Guide to Leadership, London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Simpson, P. (2007). Organizing in the mist: a case study in leadership and complexity, Leadership & Organization Development Journal 28(5): 465–482.
Stacey, R. (1995). The science of complexity: an alternative perspective for strategic change processes, Strategic Management Journal 16(6): 477–495.
Ware, K. T. (1995). The Orthodox Way, Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

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