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

The Power of the Single Leadership Story

Written by: on March 15, 2023

“Am I really what others say of me? Or am I only what I know of myself?  . . .Who Am I?

This one or the other? Am I this one today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling? . . .

Who am I?

They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.  

Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!”[1]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most well-known and influential Protestant theologians of the 20th century when he penned these lines.  He led an underground seminary, training pastors to disciple people effectively in the tumult of the 1930s and 1940s.  He wrote the poem, Who Am I? During the two years in a Nazi prison before being executed on April 9, 1945. Some argue he failed while others say his death was the beginning of a new era for the Church.  Either way, I feel the freedom in his struggle with vulnerability while still secure in God.

Did you, too, think about leaders like Bonhoeffer while reading Simon Walker’s book, The Undefended Leader: Leading out of Who You Are?[2]  Walker acknowledges how conventional wisdom insists that success in leadership comes from dismissing the very idea of failure. Yet, the heart of his work describes an undefensive leader who wants understanding in what drives his or her style. “Freedom,” writes Walker, “comes from knowing you are approved of.  Freedom to perform comes from the knowledge that there is someone rooting for you in the audience . . . in such a relationship, you become free.”[3]

I sat with this statement for a long time. Is it realistic or even possible for a leader to experience such extravagant freedom?

The drama of this book is the hidden vulnerability[4] of being a leader, which, if I’m honest, doesn’t sound like freedom to me. When I listen with a friend or colleague who is in a position of leadership, I hear the heartbreaking rhythms of their front and back stages competing for their integrity.  The stories they share of what was said publicly compared to what actually happened privately, keenly mirrors Walker’s metaphor when he reveals, “What lies behind the creation of a front and back stage is a sense that we cannot entirely trust our audience, and so we need to manage what they see of us.”[5] 

Sometimes, however, the hidden vulnerability is just too much to bear.  One leader I know who was second from the top of a large, charitable trust on the East Coast discovered the fall out of trusting those he worked with.  Planning to retire from the organization, he took a sabbatical knowing he’d stay five more years.  A few months after his sabbatical, the board chair let him know his retirement would be announced within the year. He thought he was a valued, approved, accepted player on the team. This is a leader whose back stage is impeccable and enjoys an adoring private audience. And from what others know of him, he always joined in the up-and-running movement around his team.

Another leader I know stepped into a traditionally male role at a non-profit organization in Europe and within the year determined her colleagues could be trusted.  Only to find out that her entire team of direct reports went around her to her boss directly with severe complaints about her leadership.  She tells me she had no idea.  My guess is that her leadership will stay defended, withholding trust and eliminating risk from here on out.

It’s the power of the single leadership story that takes me back to my question: Is it realistic or even possible for a leader to experience such extravagant freedom?

Reading Simon Walker’s book tells me the answer is “Yes.” As long as you protect the hidden vulnerability. The gaps of the single leadership story filled in for me when I read that perhaps freedom is when a leader does all they can. Walker writes, “The undefended leader, on the other hand, does all she can to acknowledge her exercise of power, and the flow of power in her organization, and to make them both explicit and accountable.”[6]  And then I remember Edwin Friedman’s call to the one leader’s capacity for self-differentiation, “Get outside the emotional climate of the day, don’t ignore the emotional process.”[7]  Or Daniel Kahneman’s wisdom whispering in the leader’s ear, “Don’t be overconfident, you are prone to an exaggerated sense of how you understand the world.”[8]  These are all warning signs on our single leadership journeys so we can experience extravagant freedom.  

Am I experiencing the freedom Walker describes? Give away trust, be aware of the critical decision of the moment, join in the up-and-running movement around you, take risks, be vulnerable, be free to receive or not.

I will always ask myself Bonhoeffer’s question in my hidden vulnerable moments.  “Who Am I? This one or the other? Am I this one today and tomorrow another? Am I both at once?”[9]

The challenge I take away from this book is that no matter how hard I work doing what God has called me to do, no matter how transparent and authentic I may be at any given time on my front stage, there must be a hidden vulnerability.  If there’s not then I have failed in how Walker defines leadership: “Leadership happens when a person takes responsibility for someone other than herself.”[10]  When I am praying with one person, visiting with my 86-year-old father, speaking to a group, or serving a meal, my deepest calling is to help that person or the group bear their vulnerability.  Then I can stand with Bonhoeffer and say, “Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!”[11]


[1] Robertson, Edwin. VOICES IN THE NIGHT THE PRISON POEMS OF DIETRICH BONHOEFFER. Zondervan Publishing House, 1999.

[2] Walker, Simon P. Leading Out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership. Piquant Editions, 2007.

[3] IBID

[4] Crouch, Andy. Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing. Illustrated edition. IVP, 2016.

I highly recommend this book. Andy Crouch writes about true flourishing being both strong and weak.  See his chapter 6 with the title, Hidden Vulnerability.  

[5] Walker, Leading Out of Who You Are.

[6] Walker, Leading Out of Who You Are.

[7] Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. New York: SEABURY BOOKS, 2007.

[8] Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. 1st edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.


[10] Walker, Leading Out of Who You Are.


About the Author


Pam Lau

Pamela Havey Lau brings more than 25 years of experience in speaking, teaching, writing and mediating. She has led a variety of groups, both small and large, in seminars, trainings, conferences and teachings. Pam’s passion is to see each person communicate with their most authentic voice with a transparent faith in Jesus Christ. With more than 10, 000 hours of writing, researching, and teaching the heart and soul of Pam’s calling comes from decades of walking alongside those who have experienced healing through pain and peace through conflict. As a professor and author, Pam deeply understands the role of mentoring and building bridges from one generation to another. She has developed a wisdom in how to connect leaders with their teams. Her skill in facilitating conversations extends across differences in families, businesses, schools, universities, and nonprofits. Pam specializes in simplifying complex issues and as a business owner, has helped numerous CEOs and leaders communicate effectively. She is the author of Soul Strength (Random House) and A Friend in Me (David C. Cook) and is a frequent contributor to online and print publications. You can hear Pam’s podcast on Real Life with Pamela Lau on itunes. Currently, Pam is a mediator for families, churches, and nonprofits. You can contact Pam through her website: PamelaLau.com. Brad and Pam live in Newberg, Oregon; they have three adult daughters and one son-in-law. One small, vocal dog, Cali lives in the family home where she tries to be the boss! As a family they enjoy worshiping God, tennis, good food and spending time with family and friends.

8 responses to “The Power of the Single Leadership Story”

  1. Jennifer Vernam says:

    Pam, I appreciate the compelling and painful examples you have cited here that prove out Walkers point of the weakness of misplacing our ultimate trust in the people around us. When I think about that, my gut response is to build up virtual walls of “security”; to not rely of those who may pull the kinds of stunts your friends have had do deal with. But that would not be leading with a mission. It is truly a tightrope walk of striking the balance of vulnerability with the security of knowing who we belong to.

    • mm Pam Lau says:

      Jen, Yes! I agree. What gives me hope is hearing about organizations and teams where healthy leaders are working alongside one another while maintaining a commitment to the mission. For example, when I was leading my second discovery workshop last fall, one of my stakeholders from The Bible Project pushed back on my NPO saying he never experiences a lack of support in his role. As we all questioned him, it turns out this is the first time he has worked in an environment where he didn’t have to put up the virtual walls of defense, as you say. It’s my plan to explore more what The Bible Project is creating. Do you think it’s possible to have on-going trust within teams for the long haul?

  2. Jenny Dooley says:

    Hi Pam, Hidden vulnerabilities, freedom, and trust are big concepts that stand out to me from your writing this week. There seems to be a lot of tension in holding those and the feelings that accompany them at the same time. I love your questions. So grounding! Awareness, attention, and letting go seem to be necessary skills for a differentiated and undefended leader. Some vulnerabilities we are aware of and others are beyond our awareness. As Jennifer has mentioned, trusting in whom we belong to helps hold the tension. What does trust look like for you as you hold that tension? Thank you for the thought-provoking post!

  3. mm Pam Lau says:

    You are so right in saying the leadership journey one that is fraught with tension. For me, trust has been broken, buried, risen again, morphed, renewed, matured and become like a child again. Through a wild array of experiences, God has taught me personally and professionally to not only become a better student of safe people/organizations but also how to take risks that strengthen the core of my leadership. If I am always playing it safe, I will never grow nor will I follow Jesus into the hard places. I’ve learned to give people a thousand chances as I’ve been given. How would you answer your own question?

  4. Kally Elliott says:

    “Freedom,” writes Walker, “comes from knowing you are approved of. Freedom to perform comes from the knowledge that there is someone rooting for you in the audience . . . in such a relationship, you become free.”


    This is a life-long journey, a dance we are always trying to learn, so that we can be “free” in our movements. (Not sure that metaphor works but I’m going with it.) I appreciate the phrase “Remember who you are and Whose you are.” You are a child of God belonging to God.

    Yesterday, in the car ride home from Portland with our church staff, several times I caught my inner dialogue saying, “Ugh. Why did you say that? You are talking too much!” In those moments I had to correct my inner-dialogue reminding myself to be myself! Gah! I am trying to remind myself to be myself though because I hope to one day fully live into who God has made me to be, trusting with my whole heart that I belong to God. That’s not to say I can do/say anything at all times or that I shouldn’t self-correct at times, but sometimes the inner-critic is definitely not the voice of God.

    I am rambling here….

    Thank you for your post!

  5. mm Pam Lau says:

    What you write about in your comment above is intriguing in light of the quote about freedom. I wonder if we are brave enough in taking the chance to face the voice of the inner critic? What would transform for us if, in the moment, we shut her down and lived fully present even during a simple car ride home? On the other hand, being thoughtful and careful with our words matters. What I am after here is the inner critic–being free from such a voice. That’s freedom. Does anyone have it? Fully?

  6. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    Pam, thank you for sharing the dark side of leadership. I believe critique and corrective behavior should never be a surprise in a review! I’m sure there is space given when leaders go away like for a sabbatical for those following to do some reflection, but what a huge, gigantic miss for this congregation? I wonder if trusting the Leader has as much to do with also trusting those you lead?

  7. mm Pam Lau says:

    Jana, I am curious about your statement, “Critique and corrective behavior should never be a surprise in a review.” Could you expand a bit more on what you are meaning? Don’t you think it is a surprise to many? If not in a review, how else do leaders receive feedback? This is an important area of questions. Thanks for your response.

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