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

Self-Emptying and the Art of Letting Go

Written by: on April 13, 2021

The eighth and final strategy of leadership Simon Walker examines in “The Undefended Leader” is called “Self-Emptying.” He lifts up Jesus Christ as the model example of this style. A self-emptying strategy is back stage and attentive, one in which a person is willing to give up power as a deliberate act, trusting that the work will continue through followers who continue to believe in and support the mission.[1] It is important to recognize that self-emptying is not an abdication of leadership where one simply checks out. It is instead a means of demonstrating one’s antifragility and skin the game as Nassim Taleb might talk about by willingly and humbly laying down power so as to empower others. The self-emptying strategy is a means of letting go so that others can grow.

When my oldest son was graduating from high school, I remembering thinking about all of the times in his childhood where I had been practicing how to let go. When he was a toddler, I let go of his hands so he could walk on his own. When he learned to ride a bicycle, I let go of the seat so he could ride without me running next to him. When he started school, I let go of the idea that most of his time would be spent in our home. When he got a driver’s license, I let go of the certainly of knowing where he was. I watched him take jobs so he could earn his own money. I watched him go on dates so he could learn his own style of social interaction. I watched him go off to college so he could be his own man. All of these were exercises in letting go. I released my power and authority as his parent so that he could become the person God had created him to be.

Jesus did his for his disciples and for the people of the early Church. His death and resurrection sparked a global movement that grew far beyond where Jesus himself had walked during his ministry. Jesus prepared “his followers for his final withdrawal, after which he would no longer be present with them. The time had come for him to ‘let them go’- and for them to let him go….Of course, his physical withdrawal made possible the greater release of his spiritual power, the gift of the Holy Spirit, who Christians believe empowers the church for a self-sacrificial life of witness and worship.”[2]

While not trying to imply comparisons between Jesus and US American presidents, a similar example might be seen in President George Washington’s decision not to seek a third term of office in 1796. With his health failing, Washington was concerned that dying while in office might create the precedent that a president could serve indefinitely. He also knew that a truly contested election would have to be one in which he was not a candidate. Washington had many other reasons for choosing not to run for a third term, but it also proved to be an opportunity to allow the United States to move forward from his leadership and into its next chapter in history. For Washington, and for the nation, this act of letting go was a sign of great confidence and strength, even though it meant uncertainty and change.

Letting go is often the most difficult part of leadership. A truly undefended, self-differentiated leader can see an organization functioning without them. Self-sacrifice is not all about mere martyrdom, it is about creating space for others to thrive as the ultimately expression of love and respect for those whom one leads.

[1] Simon Walker, “The Undefended Leader,” (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2010,) 283.

[2] Ibid, 282.

About the Author

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

7 responses to “Self-Emptying and the Art of Letting Go”

  1. Dylan Branson says:

    Thanks for this, John. In a lot of your posts and comments, you’ve talked about being a church planter. What was it like for you to eventually step away from it after being involved in the conception and planting process of it? How have you found yourself stepping away in other areas of your ministry?

    • John McLarty says:

      I like starting things. I’m also good at diagnosing a problem and beginning the work toward a solution. I’m not so good at the longer-term stuff. Stepping away from the church I helped start was tough- I loved the people dearly, but I also knew that neither I nor they could go any further as long as I remained in my role. But even then, there were many opportunities to lead and leave well. Part of my DNA is always thinking about what something might look like without me in the picture. This allows me to stay focused, but it can also give the perception of detachment. I’m still trying to learn how to just be in and enjoy a moment.

  2. Shawn Cramer says:

    John, what is it like to let go of dreams, too? I’m trying to discern if some of my aspirations are rooted in ego and pride rather than seeing the Kingdom and Kindom grow.

    • John McLarty says:

      Letting go of dreams is tough. I know there have been many times when I had hoped for something to work out. My kids have really helped me with this one- I’ve had to let go of all kind of dreams I had for them (pro baseball player, valedictorian, etc.) That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but seeing them making their own choices, ones that I might not have made, is an exercise in letting go and being open to where life might take us. My father has a saying: “if the way be clear.” It’s his way of reminding us not to force things and to pay attention to the obstacles that may be hindering us for a reason. This has also helped me step back when necessary. Ego and pride are not bad things, as long as we maintain a big enough perspective. Some of the best things in life that have ever happened for me were the result in me not getting the thing I thought I wanted. And some of my greatest struggles came when I got exactly what I asked for.

  3. Darcy Hansen says:

    Letting go is so hard. Planting seeds, tending them to a point, trusting others to nurture them and harvest well is difficult, but absolutely necessary. For my 50th birthday, I wrote 50 letters to 50 people who have been influential in my life. I sent one of those letters to the Exec. Director of the church I used to attend thanking her for the internship opportunity she gave me and for modeling gracious leadership during my many years there. She sent me a reply and told me she was grateful for the ways I helped her to grow in her understanding of women in pastoral and teaching ministry. Since I left, that church has changed the titles of many women on the leadership team to “Pastor,” and they’ve also hired a woman (of color…which is huge) to be on the pastoral teaching team. It broke my heart to leave that community, but God continues to remind me I was there to be a seed planter.

    As you consider the new dreams God is giving you for your season of downward mobility, what will you need to do to raise others up so you can step away or down from your position and trust all will be well cared for?

    • John McLarty says:

      I’m just trying to be more open to what God wants from/for me. That might be stepping away from something, or it might just mean I’m being less directive about what happens next. I have a tendency to plan ahead! Letting go for me is trying to do less of that and attending to the opportunities as they come. I like the 50 letters idea, by the way. I might think about that next year.

  4. Greg Reich says:

    Letting go is often a way to get out of the way so others can flourish beyond you. You are correct, you don’t have to give up leading to let go. So often we as leaders feel the need for control instead of release. I have often wondered why that is the case. For me the struggle was a combination of condoning my position and wanting the work to meet my perfectionism. After a while I realized I was smothering those around me with expectations that were not theirs to carry. Release was so freeing to me as a leader when I finally got it in to my head that leadership is not a form of control but a position of guidance.

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