The Gift of Broken Leaders: A Review of “Ashamed No More”

By Laura Paskell-Brown

T.C. Ryan’s Ashamed No More is an incredible tale of recovery from sex addiction written by a Protestant pastor.  But the book is not really about sex at all; it is a love story.  Ryan’s journey reminds us that addiction is simply a call for love, and that recovery – or the move into spiritual community and personal wholeness – is Spirit’s answer to that call.

Though Ryan’s story can tell us a lot about the church and about addiction, its most profound message is about leadership and its connection to the human heart.  As a leader in his spiritual community, Ryan took on extra guilt and shame, feeling that his brokenness detracted from his ability and worthiness to be a leader. Having been through recovery, he now argues that it is precisely this brokenness that qualifies him to lead so effectively.

My experience as a college professor inclines me to agree. Early in my teaching career, a determination to hide my own humanness lead to huge amounts of personal anxiety.  What would my students think if I didn’t know the answer, I worried? How would they react if I was late to class or couldn’t get the grading done fast enough?  I exerted myself to become perfect.

But after months of sleepless nights, an impossible workload and a nagging feeling that I wasn’t in integrity in my classroom, I finally decided to come out.  I told my students my own story of addiction and recovery. I explained how I had been studying for a PhD, living in a beautiful apartment, dating a wonderful man and feeling suicidal and desperate.  I recounted how a motley crew of recovering addicts picked me up off the floor, and gave me tools not only to live my life, but also to be of service to the world.  And I admitted that knowledge was not enough to save me; I needed a community that could lead me on a journey to wholeness.

That moment has led me to view my own position of leadership – which as members of a community we all hold – in a totally different light. I am a role model to my students not because I went to Ivy League schools, but because I went to hell, and survived to tell the tale. As Henri Nouwen, who Ryan quotes, says: “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”

After that day in class I was inundated with emails from students. There are too many to share all of them, but two testimonials will give you an idea of their tone.

“I’m glad to tell you that your class is the best class I have ever taken. It taught me a lot about life…it feels like you been down my route before, not exactly the same thing, but similar. And that last lecture you gave prove me right…Nobody really understands me, not even my parents. Everybody thinks I’m this cool black kid, but they don’t really know the reality. Every time, you talking in class it feel like you talking to me…Thank you!” (Male Student, Aged 19)

“Professor, I had to tell you, I broke up with my boyfriend after 2 and half years right after your last class…He physically abused me for a long time. I was afraid to stand up for myself. but after I heard your story you just inspired me. and I decided I deserve something better in life and I broke up with him :) …Thank you so much.” (Female student, Aged 18).

These examples show that broken leaders do not lead to broken followers. Rather, they address the isolation that can lead people to cling to broken situations, and give them support in breaking free.  Discussing the crucial role that honesty and humility plays in spiritual leadership, Ryan states that transformation occurs when we are candid about our failings, as well as the tools that have helped us to deal with them.

Today, as a teacher of Human Development, I see my primary duty as that of creating a loving and honest community in which my students can practice that which helps them (and me) to develop.  Through sharing the tools that helped me to transform from a highly educated and utterly miserable perfectionist, to a happy, healthy, deeply flawed human being, I can help my students to mature into integrated beings who can contribute to a more loving world, and not just as cogs in a dysfunctional system.

Mary Pierce Brosmer, who creates spaces for the practice of feminine principles of leadership, argues that our world is crying out for this balancing of our institutions.  She claims that the hegemony of the masculine in our organisational life has led to an emphasis on size, scale, competition, money and action at the expense of depth, spirit, wisdom, kindness, honest questioning, joy and the community that comes from knowing a win for one is a win for all.  Still, practicing these spaces takes a great deal of courage. As Brosmer says:

“Enacting, not just writing books about feminine values will make you vulnerable. You will be less valued, especially if you’re a woman doing it. But do it anyway, because we’re running out of time…[We must place ourselves] in service to what the world needs now: teaching others to create cared for containers for birthing the great “both/and” of organizational performance.”

Ashamed No More is an example of how men can practice these “feminine” principles too.  And how utterly perfect, it seems to me, that it was his struggle with sex addiction that enabled him to being this true love to the world.

The book is also a good example of interfaith dialogue. Though I am a woman of spirit, I can entirely relate to Ryan’s brand of Christianity, which places humility and acceptance at the heart of its teachings, and that emphasises the need to consciously build communities to support this.  Indeed, his message goes beyond the faith community to the world at large.  In classrooms, churches and even in the camps of Occupy Wall Street, more and more of us are accepting our fallibility, and creating communities that seek to include everyone as leaders. Thus, Ryan’s message is a crucial one for our times: we are all responsible for the state of the world and for its recovery.

And so, whoever you are, do not hide your brokenness, stop performing, be real, and be present. And love, love, love the world back to wholeness. We are all leaders.

Laura Paskell-Brown is a PhD student and a teacher of Developmental Psychology. She is also a member of the Young Leader’s Council at Women of Spirit and Faith