Parker Palmer: Let Your Life Speak

Parker Palmer: Let Your Life Speak

“A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there. A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell.” —Parker J. Palmer, “Shadows and Spirituality” in Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Jossey-Bass, 2000).

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I learned about Parker Palmer when I attended a College of Preachers conference just for deacons at the National Cathedral led by the Bishop of Maryland, Robert Ihloff. We spent the whole week learning to preach and studying Palmer’s book about vocation. Parker Palmer told us about what causes leaders to fail. We cast shadow rather than light when we fail to go on an inner journey and have insecurity about our identity and worth. Our identity becomes dependent on performing. When we are insecure about our own self-worth we create situations that deprive others of their identity or develop settings in which others are required to meet our needs. We assume titles that place us above others. We call others by their first name, while we must be addressed by our last name or title.

Leaders fail when they see the universe as a hostile battlefield. We see others as either allies or enemies on a playing field where we must be highly competitive or we will lose. Palmer’s third explanation of why leaders fail is “functional atheism,” a term he may have coined. We believe that the ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. The fourth shadow within a leader that leads to failure is fear, mostly fear of chaos. This fear leads to a rigidity toward rules and procedures. We forget that creativity is born out of chaos. Finally, Parker sees leaders fail when they deny death. They keep resuscitating programs that are no longer alive, putting them on life support.

I can identify with all of these shadows of leadership. Do these shadows speak to you as well?


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