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

Downward Mobility: The Ideal Trajectory

Written by: on March 9, 2020

Who are the leaders of the future?  How are they formed? What is their relationship with power? And how do they make decisions? These are the questions addressed by Simon Walker in his trilogy compilation on leadership, The Undefended Leader.

As both an Anglican clergyman and Oxford academic, Walker is concerned with the formation of future church leaders and the development of moral leadership. This particular work was born out his experience with “defended leaders” who see others either as commodities to be exploited or threats to be overcome.[1] In contrast, the undefended leader is one who surrenders defensiveness and embraces a trusting posture. This is the kind of leader who influences by leveraging power in ways that “enable others to take responsibility.”[2]

His thesis is that effectiveness in leadership begins with inner character: “leadership is about who you are, not what you know or what skills you have.”[3] He supports his thesis in three subsequent volumes. The first explores the question, How are egos shaped through childhood and how does that impact the way a leader operates? In his second volume Walker explores the question, How do different kinds of leaders exercise power differently? Finally, in Volume Three, he explores the question: How do leaders make wise, far-sighted decisions in the midst of a constantly changing world? Put together, The Undefended Leader offers a description of who Christians leaders must become and a blueprint for how they might get there.

Christian mystic, priest, and academic, Henri Nouwen also wrote a book about the making of the leaders of the future. I can hear the echoes of Nouwen in the words of Walker. Titled, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Nouwen identifies three core movements of tomorrow’s leader:

  1. From Relevance to Prayer
  2. From Popularity to Ministry
  3. From Leading to Being Led

Let’s allow these two books to be in conversation with one another as we seek to become undefended leaders or, in Nouwen’s case, leaders of the future.

From Relevance to Prayer

In The Undefended Leader, Walker writes: “Freedom comes when we are concerned only about the opinion of the One in the audience who truly matters.”[4] When we live for the applause of others, we not only commodify those whose applause we seek, but we exercise leadership haphazardly, reactively, and irresponsibly. We become imprisoned by fear and by the pursuit of the ever-allusive goal of relevance. To achieve relevance is to sacrifice the goal of true leadership: “to set people free.”[5]  The undefended leader, according to Walker, is so confident in Whose she is that she is not held captive by the opinions of others.

In In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen writes: “The Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.”[6] The pursuit of relevance in the eyes of many distracts leaders from the primary task of prayerfully receiving and revealing God’s love to a world that’s desperate for it. As leaders of the future learn to live for the audience of One, “the desire to be relevant and successful will gradually disappear, and our only desire will be to say with our whole being to our brothers and sisters of the human race, ‘You are loved.’”[7] The leaders of the future, according to Nouwen, will trade the energy spent on pursuing relevance for energy spent prayerfully receiving and declaring belovedness.

From Popularity to Ministry

In The Undefended Leader, Walker writes: “Leadership is a task that occurs at every level of life and in every kind of sphere … Leadership is a way of offering life to the world, in order to draw life out of the world. As such, it is a spiritual activity.”[8] If the point of leadership is truly to “set people free,” than it is a communal task…a spiritual task…a ministry of interconnection and interdependence. Understood as such, undefended leaders reject self-gratification at the expense of others and choose, instead, a life marked by self-sacrifice on behalf of others.

In In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen writes: “Somehow we have come to believe that good leadership requires a safe distance from those we are called to lead….But how can we lay down our life for those with whom we are not even allowed to enter into a deep, personal relationship?”[9] Proximity, Nouwen argues, is a spiritual activity in which the proverbial fig leaves we try to hide behind fall away and, in the ministry of confession and forgiveness, we (leaders and those we lead) become known to one another. The leaders of the future, according to Nouwen, acknowledge that they “are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for.[10]

From Leading to Being Led

In The Undefended Leader, Walker writes: “I often lookout for people with exceptional listening skills – the ability to sit quietly without interrupting or interpreting, to notice little things and to reserve judgment. These, rather than the confidence of power, are the things I would look for in a potential leader.”[11] The defended leader is an insecure leader.  He is one who lives addicted to the sound of his own ideas and consumed by the pressure to solve every problem.  The undefended leader, according to Walker, is one who is attentive to what the Spirit is doing in her midst and who cultivates the space for solutions to emerge.

In In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen writes: “Through the discipline of contemplative prayer, Christians leaders can learn to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them.[12]  Contemplative prayer is a practice that builds our capacity to sit quietly, in stillness, and listen “without interrupting or interpreting” for what the Spirit is saying to us.  Rather than a practice solely reserved for a leader’s waking or waning moments, contemplative prayer cultivates in leaders of the future the ability to listen longer than feels comfortable.

Both Nouwen and Walker agree that ours is a world that calls for a different kind of Christian leader. Perhaps the undefended leader that Walker speaks of and the leader of the future that Nouwen calls for can best be described in a vision for Christian leadership that still awaits realization. It’s the image of “a leader with outstretched hands, who chooses a life of downward mobility.”[13]


[1] http://simonpwalker.com/undefended-leader/4532701106

[2] Simon Walker. The Undefended Leader Trilogy. Self-published, 2011. 153.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 103.

[5] Ibid., 124.

[6] Henri Nouwen. In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. Crossroad, 1992.  30.

[7] Ibid., 41.

[8] Walker, 154.

[9] Nouwen, 61.

[10] Ibid., 61-62.

[11] Walker, 158.

[12] Nouwen, 45.

[13] Ibid., 92-93.

About the Author

Jer Swigart

12 responses to “Downward Mobility: The Ideal Trajectory”

  1. Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, you’re becoming a master of bringing two thought leaders into conversation with one another. Nouwen is a powerful example of someone living countercultural to celebrity culture. How do you personally manage the ideas of networking, “getting your name out there,” managing your personal website, and the concepts you mention in this post?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      It’s been a unique journey over these past 10 years navigating the phenomenons like social media while, at the same time, launching an organization, writing a book, etc. On the one hand, I really wreslte with the idea of “marketing” and actively rebel against the game of platform building. On the other hand, when you’re apart of a story that is unfolding…a story of myriad stories that, when told, inspire and mobilize other restorative stories to be lived, I recognize the value (perhaps the responsibility?) of getting the word out. Ultimately, in a world dominated by Christian platform building, my team and I are committed to amplifying and celebrating the stories that others are living out in a way that increases God’s fame…not theirs nor ours.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    I appreciate you weaving Nouwen’s words in with Walker’s. It’s a rare leader that leads with “outstretched hands” and chooses a life of “downward mobility.” This applies to both business and within Christian circles. As we’ve seen, its counter cultural to all things evangelical and capitalistic. I believe God is raising up a generation of contemplatives in our midst, who will lead with a non-anxious presence in the most anxious of times. We can find these leaders in third space ministries, quietly serving a handful of people on the margins, rather than caring for the masses in christian mega-organizations. How do you see such a transition in leadership practice/perspective happening in your life and the life of your organization? What has been the outcome of that change in leadership posture?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Nouwen is one of my favorites and the book I reference in this post is an annual read for me. His book, as well as involvement in various settings and communities, are invaluable in the endless renovation of the grid for success that I was groomed within. The older I get, the more consistently I find myself learning from and among very unconventional, non-anxious leaders who have taken and are committed to the downwardly mobile journey that we’re speaking of here. What I admire in them and aspire for in my own leadership is much of what Walker spoke of in the Self-Emptying leader. They are humble, generous, curious, and deeply thoughtful. Their best, most impactful work is done in anonymity. Their lives are fueled by a deeply rooted connection to the Spirit. They are restless and attentive. Proactive and rarely panic. They are boundaried yet live with a seemingly effortless impulse to give their lives away for the sake of others.

  3. Greg Reich says:

    Brilliant interweaving of 2 great thinkers. As I read your blog I was reminded of the book Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp who confronts the unhealthy environment that undermines the well being and effectiveness of many spiritual leaders. One of which is the thought that they are at a higher level of spirituality than the members of their congregation. It appears that pastoral leaders tend to forget that they need the same gospel of grace they preach on Sunday.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Say it again my friend! I couldn’t agree more that this is a major obstacle for many pastors. Nouwen also writes a book entitled ‘The Wounded Healer’ in which he makes that same argument. He points out that the best “healers” are those who recognize that they are, at the same time, being healed. Such humility and empathy inform that kind of pastoral leadership.

  4. Dylan Branson says:

    One of the tensions that comes with leadership is cultural expressions of leadership. In an Eastern context, leadership is inherently hierarchical; the power distance between leaders and followers is wide at times. I believe I mentioned in a post earlier this year (or in the comments somewhere) that one observation a friend of mine has had is that Western church leaders often come to Hong Kong to pastor because of the power distance. Because respect for leaders goes much deeper than what we find in the Western world, more often than not their decisions go unchallenged (unless there are other Western workers on staff).

    We’ve talked about this tension of power quite a bit and how it’s tied into the narratives by which we live our lives. When I first started volunteering in Hong Kong, the narrative of the city was described as this: “Work as hard as you can in school so you can go to a good university. If you go to a good university, you’ll get a good job. If you get a good job, you’ll make a lot of money. If you have a lot of money, you’ll get power. If you have power, you’ll find happiness.” The way I’ve seen leaders within the church here in Hong Kong echoes that narrative as well; my old small group leader for example was upset when he got a new job at a different church because the title didn’t have “pastor” in it. He argued that because of this, his chances of rising in the ranks was highly diminished.

    But Christ turns this narrative on its head. Our happiness and effectiveness as leaders isn’t found in power, but rather in humility.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      D. Poignant cultural analysis. It does seem that, whether in East or West, the play for power is real…and…antithetical to what I think we see in Jesus. Truly, the Philippians 2 hymn should set our design for leadership more than Jim Collins “Good to Great.” That said, it wasn’t Collins who distorted the system…my research is pointing more and more so to the patristics. The Christianity that they articulated looked very little like the Christ.

  5. John McLarty says:

    Thanks for this post- it was a great conversation. Part of the challenge I find is even when leaders can self-differentiate or move toward a more “undefended” posture, many of the organizations they lead can’t/don’t/won’t make the journey with them. I’m thinking particularly about churches because that’s my lane. Some will tolerate a pastor’s humility, maybe even admire it, but when it comes times to search for the next pastor, often the primary desire is to have someone who is a “strong leader,” one who fits the more traditional role of power and authority. I wonder how leaders and organizations can commit together to explore a more undefended way?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      A great observation, here, John. The entire system celebrates the “strong” or “defended” leader, making it very challenging for leaders to shift from defended to undefended. I wonder how you, within a system that celebrates the defended leader, are shifting the culture to an undefended culture so that it is ready for your journey and so that they are ready to reimagine what they are truly looking for when your time there is up.

      • John McLarty says:

        I feel like I wear different hats at different times. When the situation calls for a more traditional leader, I’ll sometimes wear that hat and sometimes I’ll intentionally model how we can work another way. Everyone has their own expectations, so that’s another challenge. Mostly, I just try to be me and lift up the others around me.

  6. Chris Pollock says:

    Inner character. I think of the verse (Matthew 6:21), ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’

    Awesome how you tied in Nouwen’s sweetness to Walker on Leadership (considering leaders of the future). With you on this. The guard has to come down a bit. Not all the way, just to allow the onset of humility, genuinely, vulnerability (admitting our humanity and common need). It’s an other-worldly kind of leadership one that has so released control as to simply accept and share belovedness.

    Do you feel this kind of leadership happening in you, your messaging and approach?

    The ability to listen longer than feels comfortable. Awesome the way that you write this. Depth, contemplation, curiosity, waiting…and, caring! What happens on the other side of comfort in the way of listening?

    Thanks Jer. Insightful and deep, bro. Thank you for a little bit of Nouwen!

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