The Wounded Healer
The Wounded Healer is the title of a powerful book by Henry Nouwen that calls leaders to recognize the sufferings in their own hearts and make that recognition the starting point of their service to others. Nouwen is right. For years I've contended that leadership is primarily of function of who we are, not first what we do. We lead from who we are, whether we know it or not. Also, we are all broken to some degree.
As a professor in Christian leadership, I assign my students the task of creating a “life map” at the beginning of their course of study. It’s an exercise where they honestly reflect upon their past and chart the defining experiences that have shaped who they are. It’s a challenging assignment for most. The purpose is for students to become self-aware, to assign meaning to their former experiences, to understand the dynamics in their present life and leadership as a result, and to discover God’s power to use all of life for good.
Upon completion, students share their life maps with the class. Out of the numerous life stories I have heard throughout the years, I would estimate that more than half of the students come from significantly broken or spiritually dysfunctional backgrounds . . . and all of them are studying to become Christian leaders in organizations.
This tragedy of brokenness is more than anecdotal. At no time in history has there been such an epidemic of personal instability and brokenness. Myriads of people are moving into adulthood with deep insecurities produced by a culture of divorce, addictive behavior, political unrest, sexual abuse, overstimulation, materialism, and spiritual dysfunction. Even those who grow up in wholeness and emotional health have no guarantees of well-being. The potent influences of our culture coupled with our own sinful nature develops in all of us harmful patterns of thinking, fleshly motivations, and distorted views of self.
One of the prevailing myths of our time is that these intrapersonal matters do not affect leaders in the function of leadership. Yet coinciding with the decay in our culture, we witness leader after leader flounder and fail. Immoral and unethical leadership has never been more prominent. Egocentric leaders are everywhere. Leaders driven by insecurity permeate almost every organization.
Of those who are able to own their brokenness, process it, and cross a threshold of healing (not forgetting their past and broken nature, but transcending its power), there is a well of compassion that flows from those wounds that can be a powerful source of leadership. It is from this source that empathy, sincere love, and hope from the leader to another flows. At this level, we as broken leaders don't deny or reject our wounds, we accept them as God's instruments to minister to others. In this sense, they are essential to loving leadership.
As Nouwen said, “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”
Yet, what can be used for good, can also ruin a leader. For some are not only influenced by their wounds, they choose to identify with them. They are their wounds. Leadership then becomes about meeting the leader's needs and not the followers. We own our past, but we do not let it dictate our present and future actions, nor wholly define us.