DLGP

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

Let go and let God.

Written by: on October 14, 2021

The Undefended Leader may be seen as a philosophical book that uses metaphor, case studies and religion, especially Christianity, to discuss the importance of a morally healthy leadership. The trilogy begins by examining how leaders defend themselves (try to ‘protect’ their weaknesses) through hypocrisy, abuse of power and control. It then identifies various dimensions of ego, such as over-confidence, driven-ness, anxiety and suspicion, as the roots of how leaders defend themselves. Finally, Walker suggests that the secret to undefended (transparent and truly effective) leadership is in being free: to fail, give, play, grow in moral authority.

Walker’s chief argument is that the “leaders who leave the finest legacies in history[1]”are those who engage in sacrifice. Indeed, as the case studies that Walker promotes suggest, it is imperative for leaders to sacrifice their reputation, appearance of strength, comforts, rights and privileges.

Drawing from several case studies, Walker supports his proposition by the examples of the Lord Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Teresa and other respected leaders. This is important to me because Africa is desperately in need of the type of leaders Walker describes. Yet very few seem to even attempt undefended leadership. Nelson Mandela is one of those. He sacrificed the opportunity to be in exile like many of his fellow South African freedom fighters, choosing rather to remain at home. This cost him 27 long years as a political prisoner in the notorious Robben Island during the dark years of Apartheid. By giving up his freedom, family life, and whatever other short-term privileges he had, Mandela rose to become a globally respected leader and Nobel prize winner. Today, I live about two hours away from Mandela’s ancestral home, Qunu; and there’s no time I pass by that I am not awed by Mandela’s great example of undefended leadership. Agreeing with the need for sacrifice in leadership, John Maxwell observes that a leader must “give up to go up[2]”. Similarly, Jim Collins suggests that a “level-5 leader [not simply an effective manager or capable individual] displays a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will[3].”

In the year 2000, I had a moment of reflection on the fall from grace of my native country, Nigeria. About only three decades earlier, the Nigerian economy was doing so well that our local currency was stronger than the US dollar. Unfortunately, we were overtaken by leadership (at all levels) that were more concerned with self-gratification than by sacrifice. Needless to say, our moral degeneration resulted in a sharp decline in the economy and quality of life. We yearn for change, and Walker provides a very appropriate answer.

Arguably, nobody demonstrates or describes this concept of sacrifice and undefended leadership better than the Lord Jesus. In John 12:24, speaking metaphorically, He declares that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone.” In other words, for the abundant life or shalom that the scriptures promise to thrive, our egos, pretenses and false appearances must be sacrificed on the altar of truth. As Jim Collins points out, every leader who wishes to journey from good to great must confront the brutal facts about their current reality[4]. It is my prayer that, like the examples Walker provides in this book, I too will grow in the journey of discarding any frontstage practices I might have and embrace an undefended leadership.

[1] Walker, Simon P. Leading out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership. (Carlisle: Piquant, 2007), p.203.

[2] Maxwell, John C. The Maxwell Leadership Bible. (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2007), p1337.

[3] Collins, Jim. Good to Great and the Social Sectors. (Random House: London, 2006), p34.

[4] Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. (Harper Collins: New York, 2001), p88.

About the Author

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Henry Gwani

Community development practitioner and student of leadership working among marginalized communities in South Africa

17 responses to “Let go and let God.”

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Your essay reflected the real-world example of what happens in the political sphere when selfish, defended leaders enter into the important positions of influence. It only takes one person to take down an entire country. Thanks for bringing in the areas of confluence with John Maxwell and Jim Collins. Along with Friedman there are conclusions all these writers reach but from different starting points.

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Very true, Troy!! I can only imagine what would happen if we had a critical mass of godly, spirit-filled, undefended leaders across our families, churches, companies and government offices

  2. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Henry – I appreciate, once again, your connection between the reading and real examples from your life. Your proximity to such an amazing reminder as Mandela while also living in an environment where you don’t actively see more of these leaders must be an interesting tension to live in. If I can encourage you, from my time knowing you and interacting with you, I can say with certainty that I see so many of the undefended leader qualities already in you and can imagine the impact you have on those within your sphere of influence.

  3. mm Jonathan Lee says:

    Thank you Henry for your thoughts! It’s so true that when a nation’s leader falls and crumbles, it is the nation and followers that will reap suffering.

    As Kayli mentioned, I also see the passions and qualities of undefended leadership in you, Henry. I want to encourage you in all the work that you are doing in your region~

    As you are facing times of uncertainty and many needs in your world of ministry, how do you draw and restore shalom in your personal life?

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Thanks for your kind words Jonathan. Self-care is such a critical area of need, yet one that I’m sad to say I’m lacking in. To recharge spiritually, meditation, solitude, silence and prayer have proven to be very helpful. Richard Foster’s book, “Celebration of Discipline” has been a great resource in this regard. Doing ministry with my wife and the opportunity to process difficult situations together has also been extremely helpful, as she can often bring comfort and an objective perspective. I’m also blessed with the occasional opportunity to “offload” with my pastor, mentor, ministry board member or some other mature believer. But I would love to see that happen a bit more regularly. Thanks for asking

  4. mm Andy Hale says:

    The concept of sacrifice hit home for me.

    I think I had an unhealthy understanding of sacrifice when I was a church start pastor. I worked bi-professionally because I didn’t want to burden the church with my salary needs. But that bi-professional and self-sacrificing choice was at the expense of my family (traveling for my other work, long hours, no days off).

    I’d love to get a deeper perspective into what sacrificially leadership looks like and what’s the cost.

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Andy I fully agree that Christian leaders and others who work in the social sectors can often have a wrong perspective about sacrifice. Like you, I’ve had my share of that :). One practice that is helping me balance love for neighbor and self love is to prayerfully take stock of recent ministry investments, then see what significant thing I can intentionally do for family/self (quality time, affirmation etc) without feeling guilty

  5. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Henri, thank you for stressing sacrifice as central to leadership. In my years of schooling preparing me for ministry, I cannot remember a single time that characteristic was taught or discussed. I learned a lot about how to do ministry but very little about what ministry required of me as a follower of Jesus and my own soul. You are also so right to point out the impact of leadership on a national level. For better or worse, leadership impacts everything from the individual to the entire nation.

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Much thanks Roy. Of course our greatest example is that of the Lord who made the ultimate sacrifice. But I’m also inspired by the sacrifice of the early church and today’s persecuted church in several 10-40 window countries. You’re right!! We don’t talk a lot about this aspect of our spiritual journey, but I suspect that it will begin to gain a bit more prominence in the days ahead

  6. mm Eric Basye says:

    Great stuff, Henry. Engaging with you is always so humbling given your context. I greatly appreciate your insights and LOVE that you always bring Scripture into the mix. That passage you mention is a solid passage indeed, juxtaposing the two kingdoms. Press on!

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Much much thanks Eric. I’m glad you find my use of scripture helpful. Sometimes I’m not sure if the Biblical references align with my comments, so thanks again

  7. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Henry, once again you do not disappoint. You have presented a skillful use of scripture to draw our attention back to the source of all hope and transformation. Thank you. I am also grateful for your own personal reflections of Nelson Mandela and the impact that has had on you in a personal way. Finally, your description of selfish leadership that has led to the deterioration of Nigeria. It is so sad as unfortunately, this plight is plaguing many of our nations today. Well done.

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Much thanks Denise. One African nation that makes me hopeful is Rwanda. To be honest, I haven’t studied Rwanda’s leadership enough to be able to say if its undefended, but its definitely transformational, given the country’s history of genocide and the current state of affairs. Its far from perfect but I think some Biblical principles are being applied there

  8. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Henry, your love and respect for Mandala comes through as you shared his life of sacrifice and how that has shaped you….Powerful!!
    Sacrifice is really misunderstood or misused word, at least that has been my experience here in North America. So often it takes on the clothes of compromise…which is really quite different than sacrifice. I am glad you bring this theological word into the discussion because as we consider what our leadership means I think we all need to have a really strong foundation of what sacrifice means. I do like what you said to Andy about where your are right now with discerning the boundaries.

    I appreciate your interpretation of John 12:24, “In other words, for the abundant life or shalom that the scriptures promise to thrive, our egos, pretenses and false appearances must be sacrificed on the altar of truth. ” Where have you seen yourself working this truth out in your context? Did you find anything Walker said that could help us lean into this?

  9. Elmarie Parker says:

    Dear Henry, thank you for this profound and contextual reflection on Walker’s (and Collins and Maxwell) book. Your comments of the place of sacrifice in leadership, as others have noted, are so very helpful and needed in a world where often short-term gain is the primary focus, as is your reference to our Lord’s words (and example). Mandela is one of my leadership heroes as well. Thank you for lifting him up. Nigeria’s story has so many parallels to what has happened in Lebanon as well, and it all can be traced back to leadership. My heart breaks for the everyday people who bear the costs of toxic leadership.

    I’m curious how you see the discipline and posture of sacrificial leadership interacting with the front- and back-stage journey Walker describes? What prevents public sacrificial leadership from becoming another show? What prevents private sacrificial leadership from becoming destructive (you addressed this in part through your helpful response to Andy’s question…thank you for that)?

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