“Phenomenal cosmic power. Itty bitty living Space.” These were Genie’s words to Aladdin as he described the give and take of being a Genie in a bottle. I thought of this line when reading our book this week. Simon Walker’s book “The Undefended Leader” promises to take the potential leader to the top of a mountain to reveal what it takes to lead as undefended leaders of the ilk of Ghandi, Winston Churchill, and Jesus. Walker’s premise is that leadership is lived out of “who you are, not what you know or what skills you have” (pg 5 ) rather than having it grow out of situations or behaviors. Friedman would agree that data and skills don’t make the leader. He would counter how one leads through situations in their very behaviors define the leader; Friedman says that the leader who is self-differentiated models how leadership is lived within healthy systems. I think this distinction is important because it means leaders are not merely born; they develop out of intentional work on self-awareness and embodiment in praxis. Friedman and Walker’s similar concept of healthy leadership includes self-awareness. Walker is more focused on the awareness of FOO (Family of Origin) development, while Friedman is focused on awareness of one’s emotions and how to regulate one’s response within the chronically anxious organization. Friedman and Walker agree that systems functioning out of a low threshold of pain are not capable of doing the undefended work.
Walker uses the phrase “Undefended Leader” as the lynch pin for a thriving leadership identity. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the book that I understood what he meant by that distinction; Undefended means undefensive; being able to lead without rationalizing, being compelled to defend choices, or feeling a need to coerce or manipulate others to get one’s way.
Walker outlays a trinity of “bad strategies” leaders use poorly – when they are lacking self-awareness or efficiently – when they are tuned in to their selves. These strategies are the workings of the Front of stage and Back of Stage self, Power, and Control. The big takeaway from this section is a leader must engage this trinity of strategies for good not evil.
I appreciated Walker’s unpacking of the psychology of the 4 types of Leadership Egos as it relates to dynamics of trust. If found myself enthralled because it helped me put some understanding around my daughter’s anxiety and behavior. She has endured great worry that has impacted her decision making process as well as personal relationships. I’ve spent many a sleepless night fretting over why she frames her world the way she does. Walker’s unpacking of the Definer and Adapting Egos provided some important A’Ha’s. And still, I really struggled to embrace The Undefended Leader as a foundational resource for deepening leadership identity. Some of this struggle for me is due to the poignant echoes of A Failure of Nerve. My husband commented that I am now a Friedmanite. Although Walker makes his Christian background explicitly known and works to create theological space for his argument, I felt there was a disconnect between his statement of Jesus’ intentional act of laying down power and ultimately his life in self-sacrifice, while making the argument throughout the book seems to fly in the face of these undefended leader actions. For Walker, it seems an undefended leader takes up his power, whether it is personality, resource, experience, expert, positional, or given and uses it (as long as it is for good). Reading through these sections I couldn’t help but think, “Yeah, but this isn’t connected deeply to how Jesus lived as a leader.”
Another pushback for me is that Walker seems to support the use of coercion through guilt, shame, manipulation of social forces including belonging and acceptance by a leader to bring about behavioral change in a system…which is very Augustinian. Augustine believed that the way to curtail humans inclination toward sinful behavior was through fear/guilt/shame. However Friedman might say that a leader using these tactics indicate the leader is not self-differentiated and is reacting to the anxiety of the system. And if we take Walker’s statement that an organization is a reflection of the leader how different is the organization of the “child leader” (pg127-128) than the organization lead by the undefended leader in Jesus? In all transparency, I finished Walker’s book very discouraged in my leadership. Based on Walker’s presumption, I would have to describe my leadership as one without influence, energy, direction, and imagination because the congregation I serve lacks passion for engagement in deeper community. But I struggle owning the church personality as a reflection of my leadership. Shawn Holtzclaw, speaker at our Advance, talked about being aware of our own DNA and differentiate that from the DNA of the organization we serve. Holtzclaw has a “balcony” view while Walker has an “orchestra” view. So the GIF I used illuminates my reactivity to this book; I came out swinging because I felt a need to defend my identity; I just keep swinging even when no one is there. Walker would consider me the epitome of a defended leader.
This book also made me wonder, what about the prophets of the Old Testament? How does their leadership fit into the constructs of the book? The shape of my call to ministry is prophetic in nature. It’s what gets me into trouble. My leadership has been lived out of that identity. It’s why “A Failure of Nerve” resonates with me, for Friedman seems to understand the risks involved in leading from that place amid anxious people. While Walker hints at the symptoms of a hostile environment he seems to have an oversimplified notion of the dynamics between leader and organization that neglect the prophetic leadership in which he frames his book. Walker paints leadership as one with phenomenal cosmic power with itty bitty living space.