Silenced: What I Learned About Leadership When I Lost My Voice

The moment I lost my voice was unremarkable. 

I was singing as I cleaned my house, and as I tried to reach a high note, I missed it. Actually, that’s putting it nicely. Only a loud, hoarse croak came out. I shrugged it off, adopted a lower key and carried on. In the days that followed, the croaking increased no matter what I sang, so I stopped singing. Soon I couldn’t speak properly either, my words punctuated by weird croaky sounds. 

I’d always thought that if I lost my voice, I’d sound sultry and mysterious like Tina Turner. Instead, I sounded closer to an adolescent boy on the cusp of puberty. I croaked and squeaked without warning, and every day got worse. When my throat started hurting, I finally saw my doctor and got a referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist.

I felt foolish and frightened as I sat in her office. Foolish, because why did it take me so long to reach out for help? I speak at events for a living. Why did I insist on pushing through the pain? Was the pain an indicator of something serious? Had I jeopardized my career? 

After a few questions, the specialist took a closer look at my throat to see what was going on. And when I say close, I mean a camera in my nose and down the back of my throat. I silently told the Lord I would do whatever he wanted to do with my life if he could ensure that I would never have to experience this kind of “camerawork” again. 

Her diagnosis was swift.

“You have a polyp on your left vocal cord,” she said. “Sometimes a polyp requires surgery to remove it, but before that I’d like to see if we can treat it with voice therapy. It won’t disappear overnight, but therapy will make a significant difference.”

She continued, “Of course, when you lose your voice, it’s not actually lost—it’s damaged. It’s damaged by trauma, by your environment, by stresses and pressure, by your own bad habits. You’ll also need to look at how you got here, and consider how you’ll need to change your life.”

I knew I needed to take her instructions seriously. But I also realized that her words spoke to more than the moment that I had tried to be a vocal legend in my living room. Her words spoke to something deeper in me, and God was inviting me to pay attention.

What We Mean by ‘Voice’

The word “voice” comes from the Latin root word voc or vox, the same root from which we get the word “vocation.” It’s no surprise then that when we refer to our voice, we mean much more than the sound that comes out of our mouth. Our voice also refers to our God-given design, our wiring, identity, purpose and, yes, vocation. While our voice is heard in the things we say, it’s also heard in the way we relate to others, the work we create, the worlds we shape. 

In her book Raise Your Voice, Kathy Khang captures this perfectly when she notes that “our voice—our influence and our interaction with people and the world around us—is embodied through our words and actions.”

As I’ve worked alongside leaders from across industries and ministry contexts, I’ve heard a common refrain: I’ve lost my voice. I need to find my voice. I want my voice back. It’s rarely a conversation about vocals; it’s something much deeper. It’s the desire to lead authentically and effectively as the leader God called them to be instead of the leader they’ve become, downsized by the expectations and limitations of those around them. So, our conversations would revolve around tools and strategies to help get their voice back.

My conversation with the throat specialist challenged me to pay close attention to my leadership voice—my vocation—and perhaps expand the conversation I had with other leaders by thinking, Your voice, your vocation and calling is not lost. It’s damaged. It’s the result of trauma, your environment, stress, bad habits, your own choices. You need to look at how you got here, and you have to change your life.

When Did I Lose My Voice?

I’d served in churches and Christian nonprofits in various capacities for close to 30 years, and there were some moments, some traumatic job “transitions” and relational breakdowns, that were hard to get over. 

Occasionally, I’d worked in environments where it was clear that my voice either wasn’t welcome or was expected to function in a certain way, leaving me feeling frustrated or conflicted or both. And before I could settle into a habit of blaming others, I could see where my own insecurities and desire to prove myself had led me to work hours that no one else had asked me to, until I was physically and emotionally worn out. The impact of these situations lingered, shrinking the leader I was called to be, eroding dreams and vision and plans. My vocation wasn’t lost, but it was damaged.

It turns out that this is not a rarity for leaders. It happens all the time. We even see it in the stories of the leaders in the Bible.

Zechariah: Defined by Disappointment

When we meet Zechariah in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel, heaven has been silent for hundreds of years. God’s people have been subjected to numerous oppressors, and at this point are living under Roman rule. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are upright figures in their community—Zechariah serving as a priest in the temple. Their lives are seared by the pain of childlessness, and they’re well past childbearing age. 

One day Zechariah is selected for the distinct honor of burning incense in the temple offering sacrifices to God. There in the temple, God breaks the silence when the angel Gabriel appears to a terrified Zechariah with an answered prayer. Finally, Zechariah and Elizabeth would have the child they’d waited for all their lives.

If it’s comical that in the presence of Gabriel Zechariah’s response was “How can I be sure of this?” Gabriel was not impressed. He reminds Zechariah exactly who he is and how he usually spends his time: I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God. And as a consequence of his response, Zechariah would not be able to utter a word until his son was born.

Though this is the public moment Zechariah lost his voice, I’d contend that he had lost his voice long before Gabriel spoke. Zechariah was a faithful priest eroded by years of waiting—waiting for God to fulfill his promises to his people, for God to speak like he did through prophets of old. He’s defined by the disappointment and loss (and likely community stigma) of childlessness. So, when God shows up to meet him, he still asks for a sign. His voice is not just lost, it’s damaged.

What has happened to your voice, your vocation? Has disappointment and despair defined your leadership?

You had great hopes for that church plant, that nonprofit, that business. You prayed, discerned with key people in your life that this was the next step for your calling. You invested everything faithful into this new opportunity: time, money, relationships—but then came the turbulence of leading through the early 2020s. A global pandemic, economic uncertainties, racial tensions and protests, bruising political cycles in multiple countries, and war. Your work didn’t survive. 

Or maybe it’s more personal—a longing for child, a chronic illness, an agonizing relational breakdown. You are still leading, but you dream a little smaller, risk a lot less. You were knocked down and got up again, only slower this time.

Esther: A Damaging Environment

When Esther was swept onto the global stage as queen to King Xerxes, she had one job: Look pretty. Her voice was irrelevant. She was a solution for Xerxes and his fawning enablers after Queen Vashti had used her voice to say no to the king’s drunken wishes. Esther was taken from her world and thrust into another one in which she had everything given to her, except her own voice. 

When Esther’s relative Mordecai refused to honor Haman, one of the king’s nobles, Haman decided not only to kill Mordecai, but to destroy all the Jews. Yet as Haman’s deceptive and diabolical plans reach the public sphere, Esther’s initial response was … silence. Yes, she had a high position, but did she have any actual power and influence? Did she have a voice? Mordecai challenges Esther’s passivity and perceived powerlessness, and finally she owns her position, risks her life and uses her voice “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).

I wonder if you lost your voice because you didn’t know you were expected to be a silent partner. Over the years, I’ve had a number of conversations with leaders who were invited to take a position with great fanfare. But as the job got underway, it soon became apparent that their presence was merely to check a box, because the organization needed a woman on the team, a young person on the team or a person of color on the team. It gave great optics for the organization, yet at the end of the day it was the checked box that mattered, not the person’s leadership or distinct point of view. The position was offered, but assimilation was expected. 

The leader soon felt limited by their environment, uncertain they could show up in full voice leading in the way they were designed to lead. For a while they hoped that perhaps they could be a positive influence in that space, but in the end, they were the ones being changed. They were losing their voice.

How has your environment restricted your voice? Can you lead in the way God called and designed you, or are you expected to fit into a mold?

Saul: Hidden in Baggage

Sadly, our leadership voice is not always damaged by painful and traumatic circumstances or by our environment, but by our own destructive habits and poor choices. After the chaotic era of the judges, Saul was Israel’s first king. Yet his actions at his coronation were a foreshadowing of the type of leader he would be. Saul couldn’t be found at his own crowning, so when the people sought the Lord concerning his whereabouts, the Lord replied, “He is hiding among the baggage” (1 Sam. 10:22). Indeed, Saul hid in his own baggage for his entire life, and in so doing he decimated his calling and disqualified himself.

Saul was charismatic and strong and prophetic, but he couldn’t get out of his own way. When God gave Saul instructions on how to lead, Saul insisted on leading on his own terms. When Samuel challenged his attitudes and told him that his actions would cost him his kingship, Saul’s primary response was to ask Samuel to honor him in front of the people. Saul’s need for public approval would consume and devour him and his relationships to the point where destroying David became his obsession for years. Saul had to be No.1. Anything less was a threat. He died a shattered man with a complicated, broken legacy—not even a fragment of the leader he was called to be. 

We’ve read the countless stories of powerful, charismatic leaders who have made choices that have broken their families, decimated their communities, destroyed their legacies. Unhealthy habits grew in the shadows of their brilliance. Poor choices were overlooked or minimized. Strengths were elevated, weaknesses finessed and ignored. Eventually it cost them (and others) everything.

What habits are damaging your leadership voice? What choices are you currently making that, if left unattended, could grow to decimate your vocation (and the rest of your life)?

Whether it’s the leaders in Scripture, the people in our lives, or our own lives, one thing is clear: A damaged leadership voice has far-reaching consequences. We need guidance for the way ahead, and we need to take action.

The Treatment Plan

Back at the ENT specialist’s office, a program to restore my voice was taking shape.

1. Rest and Reassess.

The first thing she insisted on was rest and therapy. Without consistent rest and all the exercises and treatment, my voice wouldn’t stand a chance to heal. The voice therapy dove deep into my voice behind the scenes, deconstructing the ways I’d used it in the past and understanding how the damage got there. And then encouraged me to adopt slow, steady tools to live a different way.

Do you need to take time to rest so that you can have a fuller understanding of what happened to your vocation? Instead of voice therapy, how about therapy? Leadership can be traumatic and scarring, leaving many of us limping through our leadership. It’s time to talk to a seasoned professional to help us.

I took a sabbatical last year, and spent time with a therapist and spiritual director. I needed the space to stop and reassess. I also needed to unpack difficult leadership experiences and the leader I’d become. The space and processing gave way to healing and hope and a stronger voice.

Who do you need to talk to?

2. Consider Your Support System.

The specialist was specific about environment. My world was too dry for my voice and would wear it out. I needed to put support systems in place. I had to carry water with me at all times and place humidifiers around my house. When I traveled for work, she instructed me to fill hotel room bathtubs and sinks with water to add some humidity to the environment.

Pay attention to your surroundings. Are you there for impact and influence, or are you a check in the box for your employer’s public optics? Can your vocation truly thrive in that space, or is it drying you out? 

Some of us don’t have the luxury of changing our environment anytime soon, and we may not need to. But we do need to consider our support system. What sorts of people do you need to put in place so that your leadership voice can thrive today?

3. Address Self-Sabotage.

The final part, and in some ways the hardest part of the treatment plan, was dealing with well-worn poor habits and bad choices that I’d been making with my voice. I’d taken shortcuts, and my voice was suffering as a result. Though I loved preaching and speaking, the fact remained that I was sabotaging my own voice.

Where are you sabotaging your own leadership? It is a question I return to when temptation is near or unforgiveness and bitterness grow. It’s a question I have to ask myself when vanity and insecurity attempt to get a seat at my personal decision-making table, or when I try avoiding vulnerability or accountability. It’s a sobering, humbling question, but it’s exactly what I need to ask—often in the presence of a trusted prayer partner, counselor or friend.

Are you sabotaging your vocation? Consider the habits and choices that if left unattended could decimate all you have worked for, breaking your legacy. And get the help you need immediately.

Recovering Your Voice

It took months of work to recover my voice. I never did sound like Tina Turner, but eventually the croaking disappeared. I hit the notes that I missed all those months before. And as I applied the instructions to my leadership voice, I found healing and strengthening in my vocation too.

If you’ve lost your leadership voice, it may be damaged, but it doesn’t have to be the end. It might take months of work, but there is a way through. Thankfully, we have the One who can patiently lead us forward, restoring the damaged places, healing the broken pieces, giving us a new way to live until we are in full voice, healthy and free and ready to lead again.