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

Moving Away from Performing with Counter-Cultural Leadership

Written by: on September 12, 2023

Reading Simon Walker’s second book of the Undefended Leader Trilogy: Leading with Nothing to Lose,[1] I was happy to see that Walker continues to focus on leadership characteristics that extend beyond what is reinforced in today’s popular culture:

…you’ll struggle to find a single class that suggests that learning to be weak may actually be part of being strong- and not just quite strong, but the strongest a person can be.[2]

This idea of challenging the typical leadership model happily gels well with other readings from the past few weeks.

Let’s take a Walk

This summer, my book club decided to read Skye Jethani’s With: Reimagining the way you relate to God[3]. True to form for my book club, we are divided on our opinions of his writing style, whether he achieves the appropriate amount of depth in the topic, and various other dimensions, which makes this group thoroughly enjoyable. Regardless of all those viewpoints, reading Jethani’s book has forced me to take a hard look at how performance driven I am, and if that focus is one that is pleasing to God.  If I were to summarize one key takeaway from this book I would say that God is not concerned with how many mountains we have summetted in His name, but rather how many walks we have taken with Him.

Growing Up

This week, I also read a recent op ed from David Brooks[4] where he attempts to trace the source of what he calls the decline of the American psyche. In this work, he makes some compelling statements about the need to move away from a self-soothing culture to one of “inner security.” He calls for society to move past a perpetual fixation on self-soothing and a more healthy, balanced maturity.

Maturity, now as ever, is understanding that you’re not the center of the universe. The world isn’t a giant story about me. In a nontherapeutic ethos, people…weave their stable selves out of their commitments to and attachments with others. Their identities are forged as they fulfill their responsibilities as friends, family members, employees, neighbors and citizens…Maturity in this alternative ethos is achieved by getting out of your own selfish point of view and developing the ability to absorb, understand and inhabit the views of others.[5]

Brooks hints that healthy wellbeing is developed in concert with life’s challenges rather than despite them.

Advice from Walker

When I return to Leading with Nothing to Lose,[6]  I am now starting with these two data points in mind. In my movement to mature leadership I am now influenced by these two principles:

  1. Be focused on walking with God rather than performing[7]
  2. Leverage life’s “commitments to and attachments with others” to “weave” an overall state of wellbeing[8]

Walker introduces eight strategies for leadership and challenges us to learn them each individually and then master the concepts of learning how to use them in concert.[9] That sounds great in theory, but I am skeptical of the do-ability of such an endeavor. I mean, do I really think in the next 6 months, I can place myself in situations where I can strategically determine if my back or front stage approach, should be used, and then identify if this is a situation where I should be dynamic, territorial, responsive, or attentive? And, then in response to that situation, pull out one of 8 approaches that exactly fits the needs of the situation? In full transparency to you, dear audience, no, that will not be happening in my current context.

So, with the two concepts I shared above rattling in my head, and the desire to look for practical opportunities to grow, I gravitate to chapter 14, where Walker introduces an idea of the Holy Grail of Leadership. Right away I noticed that the first four felt performance focused, so I put those to the side and looked at the last 4 which I have roughly paraphrased, here:

  1. Have an area in which you are not leading but are being led
  2. Be still and ‘attend to the moment’
  3. Lay down your power at major junctions of your life
  4. Wait quietly, learning to be content with what we have[10]

All four pieces of advice seem to have underlying values of intention, patience, and humility. They lend themselves to an attitude of “bloom where you are planted” or perhaps a call to curate the collection of experiences you have been given.

These counter-cultural concepts infer a practice of walking with God towards maturity. They leverage the situations in which we find ourselves; using the people and commitments God places in our path for mutual growth.



[1] Simon P. Walker, Leading with Nothing to Lose: Training in the Exercise of Power (Kindle Edition).

[2] Walker, Kindle Edition, Location 78.

[3] Skye Jethani, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God (Thomas Nelson, 2011).

[4] David Brooks, “Opinion | Hey, America, Grow Up!,” The New York Times, August 10, 2023, sec. Opinion, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/10/opinion/trauma-mental-health-culture-war.html.

[5] Brooks.

[6] Walker.

[7] Jethani.

[8] Brooks.

[9] Walker. Kindle edition, location 626.

[10] Walker. Kindle edition, location 2359.

About the Author

Jennifer Vernam

8 responses to “Moving Away from Performing with Counter-Cultural Leadership”

  1. mm Tim Clark says:

    I really gravitated towards those last 4 points as well. So counterintuitive, but so important:

    Of the 4, “being still/attending to the moment” and “waiting quietly learning to be content with what we have” are constant issues for me because I’m wired as someone who always wants to improve myself and our org, and I struggle with having a non-anxious presence.

    This class (and books like Walker and Friedman, and more) have challenged me to intentionally grow in these areas.

    Curious, are there any of those 4 that are especially hard for you?

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      I thought I was doing well to narrow down to four! My husband, when reading my post said I should work on being content with what I have… that may tie into a marital dispute about the appropriate number of shoes one should own, but I am not sure.

      In truth, the one I most gravitate to right now is around attending to the moment. I just listened to a podcast today about savoring the moments we have, and I wonder if I am hearing this messages from various sources for a reason

  2. Travis Vaughn says:

    Jen, I think for much (most?) of my adult life, I’ve had either a conscious or sub-conscious bent toward wanting to summit peaks with God rather than enjoy the “being with” part of spiritual formation. “Taking walks” with God is helpful and is directionally where I’ve wanted go over the past 1/3 or less of my life and ministry. For me, the more “mundane” (walks, not mountain peaks) is something that has a been a more recent discovery, and by mundane I mean daily liturgy (daily office) that follows a basic structure (with help from the Book of Common Prayer!). Your second principle of “healthy wellbeing…developed in concert with life’s challenges rather than despite them…” is also instructive, and is really only possible, I think, with Walker’s reminder for the leader to find identity not in performance, not in the applause from others, but in God (the “Other”). This leads me to reflect on what you said about having an area that I am not leading but am instead being led. Of course, this will help strengthen the “leading out of weakness” and not out of position or role component. Even as I am writing this, I am taking inventory of what those areas — even a single area — are for me. Great post!

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      I am glad you liked the post. I too liked David Brook’s reminder about how wellbeing can be found in the midst of struggle. In rereading this, I am also discovering the tie that has into Walker’s encouragement to be “attentive to the moment.” It all sort of flows together!

  3. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    Thanks for refocusing me on Chapter 14. Walker writes, “The transition from one style of leadership to another is prompted, then, when this bond is broken – when the resonance that united the leader and followers becomes a dissonance.”

    Boy is that the truth. In my personal case, the pioneer spirit in establishing a Christian NGO in Hungary needed a certain style (hammer?) to push through post communism bureaucratic barriers.

    Those times are done for me. And I must admit the “hospitality” in my repertoire lacked diversity. It was my way or the highway.

    Letting go, Letting God – is something I am now letting happen. Chapter 13, Self Emptying shattered my normal process, but now I watch the group minister to 8 Hungarian orphanages and pivot to do two Ukrainian Refugee summer camps. Wow. Go Crazy, Go God!

    Still God still has uses for me. As He launches us into Ukraine, I am cautioned by Walker’s comments see his Appendix: Troubleshooting Problems in Leadership, he states “What are your foundations going to be? You need to establish core values, expected behaviours, standards, goals, routines and rhythms. Are you clear about yours? “

    I am now paused from my PSX Churchill leadership strategy to wonder what is best needed here in Ukraine.


  4. Jennifer Vernam says:

    “The transition from one style of leadership to another is prompted, then, when this bond is broken – when the resonance that united the leader and followers becomes a dissonance.”

    What a nice way to say it. Basically, we reshape our leadership to meet the needs. Responsive leadership…. Is that a documented style? Will have to consult Northouse when we get there!

  5. Adam Harris says:

    The quotes from David Brooks are golden. Love what you pulled out of that book and how you weaved them into this weeks reading. I have to agree concerning the American mindset at times. I know I’ve experienced the most growth, along with purpose, as I’ve taken on more responsibility for others. Not always easy, but that also touches on how challenges mature us as well. Great posts!

  6. Kally Elliott says:

    Brooks’ quote that “healthy wellbeing is developed in concert with life’s challenges rather than despite them,” was like, “Well, yeah, duh!” for me, AND YET, just THIS MORNING I had to look myself in the mirror (literally) and tell myself that the challenges I am facing right in this moment are the very things that will make me wiser, kinder, more patient….in the future (not in the current moment). Admittedly, I was facing very first world challenges, one of them being my bank forgot that I told them I was traveling to the UK and was not allowing me to purchase a train ticket. I then could not call the bank because the SIM card I purchased wasn’t working. Thankfully, the air bnb host took control and turned my phone off and then on again and like magic, the SIM card worked. All minor inconveniences in the grand scheme of things but in the moment, I was almost in tears – thank you jet lag. I ended up having a great day and “healthy well-being,” walking miles and miles through London. Anyway, I will take Brooks’ comment with me into tomorrow as I am sure to face more travel challenges.

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