Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Can Stepping Aside be Powerful?

Written by: on September 14, 2023

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”[1] This was the verse around which our pastor focused his sermon this past week.[2] He said these words represent a lifestyle of caring about other human beings so much that we are willing to pour ourselves out so that others can live and thrive. I’m familiar with this verse, but on Sunday, it caught my attention in a new way. Do I live this way every day?

In our reading this week, I found a similar theme in Simon Walker’s book, Leading with Nothing to Lose: Training in the Exercise of Power, in which he refers to “self-emptying,” as Jesus demonstrated in his death and resurrection, as one of the most powerful strategies available to leaders. In fact, he says this seeming act of weakness, giving up yourself, is “not merely one of the eight different leadership strategies [as listed in his thesis], it is the foundation of all the others, the key that unlocks them all, the sacrifice that consecrates them all.”[3]

The Undefended Leader: Discovering the Fundamentals of Power

Simon Walker, in his second book of the Undefended Leader trilogy, proports that if we want to be effective leaders, it will behoove us to learn about the power of weakness and the nature of power itself.[4] His book focuses on the structure of power, the ecology of power, and the way in which varying patterns of power can create various strategies for leadership.[5]  Walker lists eight strategies.[6]

One might assume that Walker presents the case that each leader possesses one of these strategies through which they craft their lifelong leadership style. Walker surprises the reader by proposing that strong leaders can develop the “freedom and mobility” to use them all.[7] What is needed to be able to use all eight strategies well? In Walker’s opinion, it is stillness.[8]

Stillness allows us to notice our surroundings and discern what is most needed from our leadership in the moment. Stillness only comes when, unafraid of failure, we are free to wholeheartedly intuit the needs around us and choose the appropriate leadership strategy.[9] Undefended leaders, secure in their identity as a result of a healthy relationship with God, can move forward unhindered by fear and doubt, to lead “with nothing to lose.”[10]

A Lesson in Stepping Aside

We had our annual retreat at work this week. My colleague, Brittney, and I had been planning it for several months. The morning of the retreat, I was energized and ready to go. I met several colleagues at the retreat site early so that we could set up for the day. My phone rang, just as I finished putting our agenda and notes on the whiteboard. It was my friend Karen, who I had spent several hours with a couple days before. She was calling to tell me she had Covid.

Knowing that one of our colleagues had a compromised immune system, due to recent chemotherapy and radiation treatments, I contemplated the best course of action. In short, I handed the leadership reigns of the retreat to Brittney.

As I drove home, I felt excited for Brittney to lead. Then immediately after, I felt fear that I wouldn’t be needed and could be easily replaced. Somewhere amid these two thoughts, I found a place of settled calm, a joy for Brittney’s leadership which was being honed at that very minute, a gratefulness for our team, and God’s freeing peace.

Could I be a Leader who Empties Myself?

Walker’s chapter on “Jesus and the Self-Emptying Strategy” provided thought-provoking insights in light of my retreat experience this week. I did not exactly choose to step aside and “empty” myself for the team in this situation, but I have a new appreciation for what that could look like. Walker points out that, “Self-emptying, laying down power, is merely a channel though which a great power is allowed to flow – but it is power that enables others to flourish, not power to aggrandize us.”[11] In talking with Brittney after the retreat, she received positive feedback from our colleagues and felt empowered by this experience. I can picture her in a larger leadership role in the future.

Part of me wonders, upon reflection of the themes God is raising in my life this year, if after thirteen years leading this nonprofit program, it might be time for me to step down. Walker notes that, “People defer to a founder and yield to a longstanding leader, and when her authority needs to be outgrown if the organization is to grow further, the only way it can happen is for the leader to withdraw: to empty herself as a final expression of her attachment to the thing to which she may have devoted her life… it is a loss, a giving away…And yet, for the followers she leaves behind, if it is done in a healthy and responsible way, it can lead to both freedom and empowerment.”[12] Perhaps this week was a trial run and a glimpse of the possibilities to come.

Stillness, An Area to Ponder Further

Something I would like to contemplate further, is the importance of being still in order to listen and notice what needs to be done. Walker believes pausing is actually the most helpful course of action allowing us to “listen to the moment” and lead with relevant and substantial strategies that address what is “truly important, right, and good.”[13] I was inspired by Laura’s post last week in which she talked about taking retreat time while in Oxford to be still and listen to God regarding next steps in her life.[14] In the eye of the storm, it can be hard to stop, watch, and listen, but it seems necessary if we are to realize our full leadership capacity.


I am intrigued with Walker’s ideas of employing the self-emptying leadership strategy when appropriate and hope to have the courage to employ this approach in the future, when God opens that door. I am also challenged to be still amid the chaos, that I might learn to be a stronger leader, able to switch leadership styles as appropriate, unhindered by fear, and fully embracing the task with nothing to lose.


[1] Mark 8:34.

[2] Ray Jones, “Living as the Body of Christ,” Mark 8:34-38, Valley Community Presbyterian Church, Portland, Oregon, September 10, 2023.

[3] Simon Walker, Leading with Nothing to Lose: Training in the Exercise of Power (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions Ltd, 2007), 147.

[4] Walker, 6.

[5] Walker, 6.

[6] Walker, 35-128.

[7] Walker, 6.

[8] Walker, 145.

[9] Walker, 145-146.

[10] Walker, ix, 145, 6.

[11] Walker, 147.

[12] Walker, 126.

[13] Walker, 149.

[14] Laura Fleetwood, “Oxford: People, Places, and Plans,” DLGP: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World, Portland Seminary, September 5, 2023.

About the Author

Jenny Steinbrenner Hale

3 responses to “Can Stepping Aside be Powerful?”

  1. mm David Beavis says:

    Hi Jenny,

    Your post is a great summary of Walker’s work and a compelling invitation to stillness. We’ve all seen leaders who have not pressed in to stillness and have either not assessed which leadership “power” to utilize or simply over stay their welcome to the detriment of the people they lead.

    I am interested in hearing from you in Oxford of future dreams you may have beyond your nonprofit role.

  2. Kristy Newport says:

    You and I had the same focus in our blog- stillness!
    I like your personal example in stepping aside. It is a mixed bag of feelings that come with “self-emptying.” Thank you for sharing vulnerably how this was for you. It is amazing to think how we might be easily replaced.
    I am curious how your friend did, filling your shoes that day? Were the two of you able to debrief? I pray this was a great day for her and you were able to commend her good work.
    I am eager to see you in Oxford!

  3. Jenny,

    Great post. I loved where you referenced stillness.

    “Stillness allows us to notice our surroundings and discern what is most needed from our leadership in the moment. Stillness only comes when, unafraid of failure, we are free to wholeheartedly intuit the needs around us and choose the appropriate leadership strategy.”

    Well done!

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