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

The Kenotic Leader

Written by: on April 19, 2021

Within Christian theology, the concept of kenosis refers to Jesus’s self-emptying of His divine nature and His own will to be fully receptive to the will of God. It is a choice; it is not that His nature or will was forcibly stripped away, but rather He willingly gave of Himself so that the will of God could be realized. This kenosis is shown in Paul’s words in Philippians 2:6–11 where Paul writes, “Instead, He gave up His divine privileges; He took on the humble position of a salve and was born as a human being” (v 7). It is because of Jesus’ willingness to fully submit Himself to God’s will, which bore with it death on a cross, that Jesus was elevated to the highest place of honor and given a name that is above every name (v 9 – 11).

But what does this mean for the Christian leader? If we are to follow Paul’s words in Philippians 2:5 and have the same mindset as Christ, how do we emulate Jesus’ kenosis in our own leadership?

Simon Walker calls this the “Self-Emptying Strategy”. He immediately contrasts it with an “absent leader” and argues the self-emptying strategy “judges that the best and most powerful – and, indeed, most responsible – action is to choose not to exercise influence.”[1] He compares this type of leader to martyrs, those who are willing to “give their lives” for the cause as a means of furthering it and inspiring others. Walker writes, “Self-sacrifice compels people to take action…Self-sacrifice is the conscious choice not to use force or to exercise power but to allow something to be done to you.[2]

As a 9w1 on the Enneagram, this self-emptying strategy is one that resonates deeply with me. However, if one is not careful then this leadership strategy can actually cause harm to the leader. Completely ignoring or divorcing our own needs for others can lead to unhealthy co-dependency or the tendency to find identity in our self-sacrifice. I would even say it can build a sense of self-righteousness if we are not careful. “Look what I’ve given up for XYZ” becomes the banner we rally around as we look down our noses at those who “don’t give enough.”

So what can be done to facilitate a “Kenotic Leader” – one that is willing to empty him or herself while not losing their identity in the midst?

  1. Be Marked by Humility. In Philippians 2:1-11, the theme of humility is written throughout the entire passage. It is in humility that Jesus gave of Himself to suffer death on a cross. It is in humility that Jesus submitted Himself to the Father’s will. Likewise, it is in humility that we should practice the self-emptying strategy. The more that we give, the easier it becomes to build our identity on our self-sacrifice. The irony in the situation is that in a strategy that should be built on a foundation of humility, pride always has a way of trying to weasel itself in its midst.
  2. We Don’t Suffer for Suffering’s Sake. Walker writes, “It is important also to recognize that I’m not promoting suffering for its own sake. I see no good in pain and loss in themselves at all.”[3] Suffering must have a purpose to it. Suffering is not the end, but rather the tool to be used. When we see suffering, it has the ability to appeal to the emotional elephant that can spark change. But to suffer for suffering in and of itself is not healthy.
  3. Know Your Boundaries. As a people pleaser, it can be easy to give up more and more without realizing how much you’re truly giving. We each have a “relational bank account” that needs deposits in it. If we are not receiving those deposits regularly, there is nothing left to give.


[1] Simon Walker, Leading with Nothing to Lose: Training in the Exercise of Power (Carlisle: Piquant Editions Ltd, 2007), loc. 2064.

[2] Ibid., loc. 2050.

[3]Ibid., loc. 2064.

About the Author

Dylan Branson

Small town Kentuckian living and learning in the big city of Hong Kong.

12 responses to “The Kenotic Leader”

  1. Jer Swigart says:

    Dylan. Do you see Kenotic leadership in Bonhoeffer? As I was reflecting on him for our syntopical essay, I was struck by his story in parallels with Philippians 2. I wonder what episodes from his life you would point to as kenotic leadership.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      I do. I think one of the biggest moments for me is his involvement in the Hitler plot. What stands out during this time is that even though he knew Hitler needed to die, he knew that killing him would tarnish his soul. This past Sunday I was dialoguing with a pastoral candidate for my church and he brought this episode up. He made an interesting point that Bonhoeffer was willing to be involved in the plot, even if it cost him his salvation for the sake of the German people. What hits me so hard about this is in another letter Bonhoeffer wrote regarding the plot, he didn’t try to justify his actions. He simply begged God to have mercy on him.

      • Jer Swigart says:

        Man. Solid.

        I really appreciate this as an illustration of what it means to be Christian. With thoughtfulness, determination, and courage, we give our lives away for something much bigger than ourselves…never certain that we’re right…always begging for mercy.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    I wonder if the idea of self-sacrifice has been redefined over time? I wonder if we, in the American church, know what self-sacrifice really is? As you noted, we like to pat ourselves on the back for all we “give up to serve God and others,” but what are we really giving up? What are we really allowing to “be done to us”? If we are to become like Jesus, to live a kenotic life as Jesus lived, then are we willing to actually die? Jesus was born to live and die. The same is true for us. As we shrink back from the realities of death, we also shrink back from our ability to fully live and be human as Jesus was human. I wonder if this is part of why many of our churches have been deemed irrelevant, non-essential?

    • Dylan Branson says:

      Here are a few musings:

      I do think that self-sacrifice looks different for everyone. We can’t give what we don’t have, right? I think it’s the heart behind the sacrifice that matters. If we’re doing it to gain attention for ourselves, is it really much of a sacrifice? Or is it self-righteousness?

      Even when we read about stories of persecution around the world, it’s kind of a mixed bag. In one sense, these stories are humbling and powerful as they show us what it means to be a follower of Jesus and to be willing to give up one’s life for Him. On the other hand, I think we also have a tendency to commercialize suffering to further another agenda or we romanticize their sufferings and sacrifice.

      But maybe it’s also that the world demands more that what we give. The idol of culture demands our fealty and it often feels like we’re willing to sacrifice more for the broader culture than we are for God. When I’ve read through various social media posts about celebrities or big businesspeople donating money to a cause, the comments usually fall in line with, “Why not give more? You’ve got so much money as it is” or a sarcastic “Oh you’re REALLY sacrificing there, aren’t you?” Even writing this right now, the thought just occurred that it feels like we’re taking our offerings to the world’s temple.

  3. John McLarty says:

    You said a mouthful here. My first thought is about integrity- a clear sense of who you are, what you are about, and what you hope to do- without regard for what everyone else says and does. Of course, the risk in that is to become the lone ranger and leading no one.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      I know that my tendency in the past is to revert back into the Lone Ranger mentality. I grew up with it and with an inherent distrust of people. I was also the one did all the group work by myself and it’s not a place I want to return to. I think that’s where the self-differentiation comes in, but also a self-awareness of where we can go when the “Dark Side” starts to creep in.

      • John McLarty says:

        We all have our default settings and are often unaware of how those old patterns start to creep in. It’s a constant process, that’s for sure!

  4. Greg Reich says:

    Sometimes the concept of self-sacrifice is seen as a badge of honor. It seems like it has become a way to prove ones holiness in some circles. The importance of humility, boundaries and having a purpose behind our suffering is huge. How is self-sacrifice viewed in Hong Kong? Do you see cultural differences? Also how would you define the difference between self-sacrifice and self-discipline?

    • Dylan Branson says:

      I think the biggest cultural difference I would see is in the hierarchy of power. For me, humility has an air of servanthood behind it and a willingness to do the “dirty” tasks. However, in Hong Kong, it’s very much a culture of “everyone has their job and is expected to do THAT job.” So for example, if you go to a fast food restaurant like McDonalds, you’re not expected to take your tray up. They have people who come around and do that as their job. At school, I try to model humility by being willing to do some of the more menial tasks myself instead of asking my students to do it (such as moving chairs, desks, picking up papers, etc.).

      All of that to say, I think in Hong Kong, self-sacrifice is more common in the context of parental relationships with their children. Using the love languages as an example, it’s typical to find that Gifts and Acts of Service are the most common languages. But I think there’s also an expected return on their deposit so to speak, as it’s common for parents to live with their children when they get older and for the children to take care of the parents.

      To answer your last question, I would define self-sacrifice as there being an actual cost to what you’re giving up and it’s in the context of community, where with self-discipline it’s more individual in that you’re trying to build a skill or reach a goal through sacrifice.

  5. Shawn Cramer says:

    9w1, huh? That begs so many questions. How do you see your natural gift of harmony play into your doctoral work for 851 and how do you curb your liability for resentment?

  6. Chris Pollock says:

    Thanks Dylan, I am wondering about the connection of kenosis (self-emptying) and non-influence. Does this have to do with ego annihilation? And, the non-influence is likened to negative capability? That is, having the opposite effect.

    I guess, if we are aiming to find identity in our own kenosis, it’s not a true self-emptying? An authentic kenosis, as I perceive it, would leave an individual devoid of the inclination to find identity in anything other than the reason for the sacrifice, surrender.

    Appreciate the challenge.

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