Forge Leadership Podcast. Episode 5 : Sim Dendy on vulnerability in leaderership
Freedom Church, Romsey
Sim Dendy, leader of Freedom Church, Romsey, speaks with Simon Barrington about the power of vulnerability and weakness in a leader and how this gives access to people and builds environments of trust and hope.
Simon Barrington: [00:01:02] Tell me a little about your leadership journey and how you ended up being a church leader.
Sim Dendy: [00:01:08] Of course I guess I don’t want to admit it but the truth is one of the reasons I’m involved with church leadership is my dad. My dad was a church pastor and growing up the last thing you ever want to be is what your father is.
Simon Barrington: [00:01:24] Exactly.
Sim Dendy: [00:01:24] And then you get older like you realise how good your parents are but you missed a bit of a trick sometimes to realise that at that time. But yeah looking back absolutely my dad was a church leader and I was both impressed and inspired by him and the way he operated. But I guess ultimately as well for me becoming a church leader it was about calling. I really felt a very clear sense of calling at a young age of about 13. I remember being very much called to take a leadership role within the church. And I just knew that was something I had to do I had to step into at some point. I was about 23 when I started, talking probably now as more 19 I took on some responsibility, but more like 23 when I took on more senior leadership responsibility. And I guess the other thing is I was given the opportunity people around me I look back I think would I give a 19 year old opportunity to lead something. People did. I’m very grateful to those people who gave me a chance to I’m sure make lots of mistakes on their watch.
Simon Barrington: [00:02:17] It’s fascinating isn’t it. In my own leadership journey people took risks on me that I think, oh, would I take that risk now. Yeah. And yeah actually they were they were formative times. Can you think of a specific example where someone took a risk with you where you to really step out into a deep area of responsibility that you felt ill equipped for ?
Sim Dendy: [00:02:41] Well what’s beautiful is when you’re younger I don’t think you have the same what we have the same fear.
Sim Dendy: [00:02:46] So I was either 19 or 20 and I was asked to lead an overseas mission team to go to north Portugal to work in an orphanage there and there was a team of 20 people almost all of them were older than me and I’d been asked to lead this team. To be honest with looking back I’m like seriously who aasked a 20 year old you know to go to another country with some people who’ve never been overseas before and are meant to lead them and pastor them. It was crazy. I mean what was lovely one of the guys who came on the team was one of our church eldership team and I know now he was there to keep an eye on me and he was very supportive but very much it was my gig my leadership and they were looking to me and I think there was a lovely lack of fear. There was a few times I’m looking back now going I didn’t have the same understanding of the risks involved of letting a teenager or early 20s have a go with something and that’s one of the great things why we should release young people because that’s what happens.
Simon Barrington: [00:03:43] And do you find that easy to do in your own leadership in terms of letting young people free to become the leaders that God is calling to be.
Sim Dendy: [00:03:54] That’s a really good question I’ve just been thinking that exactly this thing this week I think I do. But I think I can always do better so I’ve got people in my leadership team in their 20s but I’m now asking the question Who are the people in their teenage years. When are we going to give them a chance to do something. And lets never at the same time you don’t overlook those who are older and just assume that they’re for someone of a certain age they have nothing to offer. And so in this desire to handover and to build up new leadership we don’t overlook those who may be you know that whole Third Age conversation. People we’ve got people retirees at church we’ve got so much energy so much to offer it isn’t a matter of suddenly just teenagers. What about those who are in their 60s, 70s, 80s who got so much to offer as well.
Simon Barrington: [00:04:38] Do you think it is possible then to start leading at any age.
Sim Dendy: [00:04:41] Absolutely absolutely. In some ways. Well there’s some advances both as I said just now being a teenager or young person there is a lack of fear. Being an older person there is so much wisdom to offer so much wisdom and I think yes there is an opportunity in leadership. I think it does come in seasons. I think for many people when they’re a certain age and involved with young families it be very hard to take leadership. I believe that leadership requires energy and if ou are low on energy, you know it’s really hard to lead if you’re ill or your frustrated by challenges of life it’s hard to lead. I think you need to tap into leadership when people have energy and sometimes people I’ve watched people who’ve retired from a job that maybe they had always enjoyed and suddenly got this new energy because they got ideas freedom they didn’t have before. So yeah I absolutely agree. I mean the story of Caleb in the Bible you know give me the high places he said you know he’s 80 years old I think as you know give me the tough jobs because I’m up for this.
Simon Barrington: [00:05:37] Fantastic. So as well as energy what do you look for in someone who you’re looking to encourage into a leadership role be they be 80 ro 18 you know apart from energy. What else do you look for.
Sim Dendy: [00:05:52] I’m always looking for what do people do when no one else is looking. I’m always I’m like a ninja leader. I’m like a spy on people. Honestly I am terrible I’m always glancing at because you know the people who most people come up to see me they say I want to be doing this in my context which being the church I want to be doing this role that activity I’m thinking about I’ve never seen you participate in anything to do with it. So I’m always looking at who are the people who are doing something who are either opening their homes up or investing in other people’s lives or you know giving financially or just get engaged in some respect I guess it’s got to get beyond the talking so I’m always looking for the action to go with that because you get momentum on your side as a leader you can take people places but to get people started to give can be hard work.
Simon Barrington: [00:06:38] And do you think that elder back on that mission trip saw that in you originally. I mean you know I want to think what you what do you think that people saw in you when you were a young 19 year old guy.
Sim Dendy: [00:06:52] Oh that’s fascinating. I’ve never asked myself that question what do people see in me at that age. I guess a lot of energy enthusiasm a lot of naivete. Probably quite. Probably quite annoying to some and quite endearing to others. Yeah. You know I think I have and still have a desire to do everything with a big smile on my face. And I think that’s got me a lot of trouble in the past. I think that maybe that’s just a just general enthusiasm. You know you don’t people on your leadership who are going to be hard work or people are going to take ideas and turn into a reality. And people love to follow someone who’s got the get up and go got a bit of energy got a bit of passion. Passion is a powerful word. I’ve been looking for leaders with passion and you know people who attract others. You know I would look for people who are leading who say let’s go out for a meal and five or six go yeah let’s join you or let’s go and do this game of football. And again four five six people will join them. I’m looking for those people who are already leading maybe they don’t even realize they’re leaders but they were already making. Maybe I was already leading at a young age but I didn’t see it for myself.
Simon Barrington: [00:08:01] One of the things I talk a lot about is the character of a leader. How do you think your character developed, that inner life of a leader and how important do you think that is. Well I mean characters are so essential. I mean there’s some great quotes I think was the one the best two traits you can have is character and strategy. And if you can’t have it both make sure you’ve got character. And I think it’ that kind of character that is absolutely essential. You know I’m still developing my character I’m still learning so much I mean my wife is on this program she would tell me how much she still tried to train me in. But can I just say developing characters is a slow process. You do not get character overnight. You might have some character attributes that are really good but to get a fully rounded human character takes a long time. I think in everybody life experience helps shape that in you or maybe knocks it out of you depending on your viewpoint. I mean you know getting married you know having to be less selfish and having to share things with other people that creates character. Having children and having to take my part in that responsibility and leading my children well requires good character. Every experience. Well we don’t learn I’ve discovered this. We don’t learn through experience but we do learn through assessed experience. You know when we look back and take notes and you know ask people to question what we’ve just done we learn through those experiences. That’s where character comes in taking those knock backs when someone says no you can’t do that or no you’re not the best person to do that particular job. That’s when character develops. We rarely develop character when someone says you’re amazing you’re brilliant. Here you have this job have this activity you have this responsibility. We very rarely learn in those good times. We definitely learn in those hard times.
Simon Barrington: [00:10:00] Romans 5 4 says not only that but we also rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character and character hope. So there is something that the writer to the Romans there really understood wasn’t there about actually it’s only through hard times, it’s only through the suffering through the perseverance that character comes. But when that character comes there is great hope that a leader is able to bring as well. Have you experienced that in your own life ?
Sim Dendy: [00:10:29] Yes. I mean you know again it repeats again probably in James Ch 1 which I find quite helpful. It talks about perseverance must finish its work. So we become pure and complete. And I guess for me I’m in that persevering stage where I’m always trying to improve my character. And it feels like I’m going you know two steps forward one step back but I have to think to myself. I am overall the net result is I am moving forwards.So I have to keep you know when you are having a bad moment.Think, why do I say that why did I do that I think actually I’m doing better today than I was doing. I’m not doing as well as I’d like to be doing and that’s okay. And probably the day I get to the point I think I’ve got it all sussed and I’m and my character is fully developed. I think that’s a really dangerous place to be in. So I remember I was at a private meeting Archbishop Justin Welby earlier this year and he made this comment to me that really resonates. He said I never want to stop learning as a leader. And I guess some of that you know somebody who is in charge of whatever it is I think 70 million people in the Anglican church responsible for so many people decisions being made can say I want to keep learning I’m thinking, absolutely. The day I stop learning to shape my character is the day I don’t want to be a leader anymore because I’ll be no use to those who are following.
Simon Barrington: [00:11:44] Now when people think about learning they think about maybe reading a book or going on a course or you know something formal like that. But I think you’re talking about something different aren’t you.
Sim Dendy: [00:11:56] Absolutely. You know I do a lot of leadership training sessions both in the world in businesses and within the church and I almost always finish off my sessions with the same kind of statement which is this is all helpful, All this stuff we’ve learned all this stuff, I’ve shown you on a Powerpoint screen or handouts I’ve given. But ultimately leadership is all about doing. And we have to go out and lead there has to be some outcome to our conversation and the way we learn and get shaped both in our character and our activity and our skills is by doing is by actually going, right, here’s a project, here’s an activity, here’s a group of people I’m going to lead them. I’m going to lead this project to fruition and to fulfilment. Sitting in a room or reading a book reading books are you know they say you know leaders are readers. I think that’s true but I don’t have a met a leader yet who just reads and does nothing else. You have to put the book down at some point and go right let me let me activate what I’ve just learned. You know if you’re going to actually become something we’ve got to actually put that into practice. Otherwise it’s just we’re wasting time sitting around reading books. And so it has to become a reality. And that’s how we learn. We learn in the human world we learn face to face. We learn as we look in the eyes when we’ve we’ve made a mistake and we have to apologise. That’s when we learn.
Simon Barrington: [00:13:15] I’m a great fan and I encourage leaders that I work with to be reflective on their action. Not only do but have mechanisms that work for them that give them feedback and enable them to ask difficult questions and open up their lives to other people speaking into them. Do you have any habits in that area. Any things that work well for you in that area or maybe you’ve seen work well for other people.
Sim Dendy: [00:13:48] Personally I find a routine works for a season. I have to change it up. Otherwise it becomes slightly meaningless. It’s just the way I’m wired that if I do routine for too long it just becomes a bit meaningless so I have to make sure I’m creating healthy habits but also habits that I can change every few months that I can make sure it stays fresh so there will be different people who speak into my life for different seasons and then I think actually I feel I’ve kind of sucked them dry and I feel like they’ve had enough of me. I go find someone else who brings it and they will help me learn different things. And so yeah very much that iron sharpening iron as Proverbs tells us is so important so spending time with people is really important and not just I found that I also learned as I have you know. We talk about mentoring I don’t think that is always helpful because therefore it assumes that there’s a senior person and a junior person I think in all the interactions I’ve had with both people who are maybe new to leadership or people who have been many many more years experience than I. I think I always gain out of all those conversations. It’s always something to learn from someone else and I make it a bit of a challenge to myself and around me a new person or spend time with somebody. What am I going to learn from gain from experience from them that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. So I make it a habit. I just try and get into people’s lives and I probably annoy people and you know I do this thing where I see or hear from a leader who’s just a brilliant leader a brilliant communicator or brilliant author or something and I kind of hound them to agree to have a coffee with me. You know I’ve done this with you as well Simon as we know we have a coffee and go. Please come to find out more about who you are and how you operate and so on always try to look for ways of doing that. In that regarding the reflection piece I am my own worst critic. After I did the typical thing would be after a session a training session teaching session or spoken in my church I would preach and before anyone has said anything I’ve already created in my head even while I’m speaking things I wish I hadn’t said things that didn’t come over so well and sometimes that has to be balanced with other people’s inputs because if it’s just left to me listen to my own podcast I would never let myself preach again because I’ll never match up to my own bar of expectation. And so I need other people who can say to me you know yep there were some things that weren’t great but actually there were a lot of things that are really good otherwise you can end up you can always end up just living life frustrated as leader always because because leadership is all about changing things and making things better and improving things. And if you’re not careful you just live life frustrated because nothing’s ever good enough. Every event every activity every conversation every meeting is never quite what you hope to achieve. And my concern is for younger leaders especially don’t live life frustrated you become naggie and annoying which I feel like I’m sounding a bit naggie now that I get frustrated it’s really frustrating.
Simon Barrington: [00:16:51] But that replay button in our head is is can be the worst thing. It can torment leaders and I know I’ve had that myself. I’ve been away preaching and I’ve got a three hour drive home and I’m just replaying the whole thing in my head thinking what made me think that that was okay to say that. And so you get around that by inviting other people to speak into your life. Is that right inviting comments inviting other people to help shape you.
Sim Dendy: [00:17:21] Yeah. And also for me is scripture is really important as well. You know we talk in Ephesians Chapter 6 of a shield of faith and to build up faith you need to get into the Word of God and I often what I will do is will literally speak to myself in a mirror. If I’m driving i wouldn’t do that but I would just I would just refer to as I say things that I just know are true. You know he that is in us is greater than he has in the world and when I hear those all those replay buttons often are our historical events that have become things that kind of just tap you on the shoulder that say remember that time you made that mistake or you did that or you said that foolish thing and you keep replaying those little stories and we have to go actually there’s a different story. I’m choosing to believe you know I did say something I I say I did make a mistake but I’m choosing to believe in a God who loves me regardless of what I’ve done or not done. And I also believe that God can you know help delete and edit the things I shouldn’t have said from people’s minds. If that wasn’t of use to them. And so I just you know I speak to myself, I build my faith up when I hear those little nagging voices and I just pray that God will take my words. And I guess over the years thing that has fascinated me most is that I will our spend hours preparing a message and I’ll preach my heart out. And I will try and give my all every time I speak. But often the thing that will resonate with certain people that come up and say to me or email me sometimes months later on the thing that will resonate with me something I have never prepared. I hadn’t planned it’s been an off the cuff remark that just the words the language the statements something I said that just hit home and I’m so grateful to God that he can take my poor effort and make it really valuable to those listening.
Simon Barrington: [00:19:02] Now one of the things you and I have talked about over coffee when we’ve met is just the whole role that vulnerability plays in the life of a leader. Tell me about that and your own journey with building teams and building environments in which other people will flourish and how you handle your own vulnerability in that context.
Sim Dendy: [00:19:27] Yeah I think for me vulnerability has been more of a recent conversation. I’m 43 years old and we talked about when I was a leader much younger I think with younger leaders you get a wonderful confidence which is inspiring. Borderline arrogance which is still quite inspiring because we kind of as we get older you wish you still had some of that. And I guess then you take a few those knocks we talked about earlier in the program and I guess there comes a point you have to be more honest with yourself where you want to be more honest with others. And I got to the point probably in my early to mid 30s where I was just trying to be everyone’s hero. I was trying to be super pastor. I was trying to be the answer everyone’s needs. I was trying to be the best husband. By doing everything my wife wanted her to do or trying to be the best dad by all my kids request. We’re like yes I’ll do that yes I’ll be there. Yes I’ll take you there. And then for the church families which can be like having a massive family make a request of me. I’m just go yeah I will make this. Brilliant, yes we’ll do that. Yes if you want that resource of course.
And I had to come to a point where I had to realise that I wasn’t everyone’s answer. I couldn’t be their answer that I wasn’t even that good and that I had a role I was part of the answer to the needs around me but I wasn’t the whole answer. And I think that became a really useful moment for me. You know I remember reading a book called The Art of Possibility by Benjamin xxxx – I’ll remember it, it will come to me who was the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. And he said it took him years to reailse that as a conductor he didn’t play an instrument. And I thought was a powerful statement that it took him years to realise that he thought the orchestra were playing for him. Actually he was there to coordinate them and he didn’t make a single sound towards their noise. And I guess for me as a leader realising that I needed other people that I wasn’t that good that I needed and required others. You know, in a room of leaders everyone thinks they can do a better job than you can. That’s why they’re leaders. And I love this bit as well. When you reveal your weaknesses to your leadership teams or staff teams or church communities or whatever your context might be whenever you reveal your weakness it’s never a surprise to anybody. No one’s surprised because they already know this is the brilliant thing isn’t it.
We think we are hiding, you know we call them blind spots certainly they are only our blind spots as everyone else they are like glaring targets so when we kind of announce one day we’ve just discovered we’ve got a weakness, everyone’s like seriously did it really take this long to realise it.
When we when we articulate our weaknesses what it does is it opens a door of access that wasn’t there before that suddenly people are relieved. Oh now we can have the conversation that we didn’t dare have before because you’ve admitted to something that we thought you couldn’t see. So it’s a yes for me vulnerability is a much more recent thing and I probably don’t realise the power of vulnerability before I just thought you had to be like a superhero and have the answers. And vulnerability is very powerful and probably Jesus was the ultimate vulnerable leader who really did you know about the need to His followers.
Simon Barrington: [00:22:50] One of my favourite authors of the moment is Brene Brown. I know you and I have talked about her research into vulnerability where she talks about that vulnerability not be a weakness but actually unique daring and you need courage to be vulnerable. And actually it’s what stops the level of connection that God actually wants for us with other people is when we pretend that other people can’t see our blind spots and we pretend to be someone else. That that we are not. What do you see happening in the people around you as you become more vulnerable. And you know what. How do the dynamics change and what what positive results have you seen.
Sim Dendy: [00:23:35] Absolutely. And to be honest I’ve had this backfire sometimes as well. It doesn’t it doesn’t always work. I’ve discovered that there are those who are who are more more classic followers they’re just looking for direction advice you know vision. And when you when you are honest with maybe a large crowd of people in that way they can be a little bit shocked sometimes and actually a bit disappointed. You know I want my leader perfect. I want them you know to be to be super human like we’ve just talked about I don’t really want to know about their flaws. And I think you know even like we see in politics here when the prime ministers or presidents make we see them for their flaws people are a little bit like disconcerted. They want their leaders to be someone who goes somewhere they want to go.
And so I’ve someone had a bit of a backfire there were people are a little bit they’re not too keen on me being too vulnerable where in leadership teams or with staff members of people who are working alongside I think when you are vulnerable it connects hearts like never before. It galvanises it’s it’s like you know we’re not going to have to be sort of a slobbery mess. I don’t think people want you breaking down on them. But just to say this is this is my challenge this is something I’m having to deal with this is something I’m working on. And just to be a hands open rather than kind of fists up looking for the fight and go actually when we do that it opens up a communication like never before because what I find is in these conversations is when you’d go first the leader an it’s always important if you’re the senior leader you have to go first in this stuff when you do it other people will follow. They will on your leadership team they will say you know what if you’re saying that. Can I just say I found this a bit of a challenge or found this and it may be a little bit disconcerting to find out your team are full of weaknesses but it is the reality and it builds a stronger team and it means you can really focus your energies on what really counts rather wasting your energy on having conversations trying to discover what other people’s weaknesses might be. They’ll start to reveal them to you because you revealed them to them first.
Simon Barrington: [00:25:46] Yeah. And certainly I’ve found in my experience of both of applying this but also in working with other people who are in positions of leadership as well they’re actually as you are vulnerable then an environment of trust actually creates is created with a team around you. And as people feel that they’re trusted and that there is trust then greater levels of creativity come out people are willing to take bigger risks because they know that actually if they fail they’re going to be picked up and supported rather than kicked and blamed
Sim Dendy: [00:26:23] Vulnerability is like a long word for saying help me it’s inviting people in saying actually you know can’t I can’t I can’t do this alone. I need you. And there’s nothing there’s nothing more wonderful than being wanted by somebody else. It is that is the flipside to power that says we don’t need you I am all powerful without you. Vulnerability says I really need you and together we might have a chance.
Simon Barrington: So if people listening want to find out more information about being vulnerable where should they look what should they search for online. Any great resources around.
Sim Dendy: Well you mentioned Brene Brown. I think she’s probably become almost the sort of spokesperson for some of this conversation. I mean her stuff around the power of her book The Power of vulnerability is probably the go to book on this subject. You’re so if you don’t like reading it a 20 minute Ted Talk on the same topic topic so deftly recommend. And the thing with Brenee Brown is it’s not just a conversation. She’s researched this to a great level and her outcomes are fascinating. And so it’s not just you’re getting someone with a thought for the day. This is somebody who really thought it through. Probably something else I found really helpful. Craig Rochelle he has a massive church in Oklahoma. Life Church great church and he’s written a book called “Confessions of a pastor” which is a wonderful book about some reality. You know here’s somebody who knows a very well thought of church looks amazing from afar and he tells you some very honest stories about how he how he gets through life and the things he’s done a very vunlnerable very real and it is just very inspiring to those of us who lead normal sized churches.
Simon Barrington: [00:28:06] Sim that’s been a fascinating conversation and we should go on speaking all day on this issue of vulnerability I think. But thank you so much for sharing your heart with us. Thank you for telling us about some of your experiences. Thanks for taking the time to come on the podcast today. Sim Dendy thanks so much.
Sim Dendy: [00:28:24] Thank you.