Undefended Leader Nuggets
Researcher Simon P. Walker, working with his colleague Jo Walker, discovered consistent patterns through repetitive cognitive tests conducted between 2000 and 2015, in studies with over 15,000 individuals. From his research, he coined the term “steering cognition.” Walker proposed that steering cognition crucially aided individuals to self-regulate their mental wellbeing and social competencies. Out of his research, Walker developed his Undefended Leader trilogy, which fits neatly within the tenets of so-called ”self-aware leadership.” Self-aware leaders are deeply aware of themselves, their background, and their relationships with others. Radically, Walker proposes that leaders should use their power for the good of others. He then sets about to develop his ‘undefended’ rather than ‘defended’ leadership model. Leaders are ‘defended’ in the sense that they try to preserve their power and influence, especially by controlling what they allow others to see of themselves.
Since Walker is both a leadership author and a clergyman, his most obvious example is Jesus whose power focus was not might but rather vulnerability. As a Christian, Walker refreshingly argues from fundamental principles and then offers real-life examples. His examples include the often-cited Churchill, Gandhi, Mandela, and Gorbachev, leaders with historically verified moral authority who embody an alternative to traditional models. Walker tends to exhibit a universalizing tendency since all leaders are ‘defended’ and employ strategies to protect themselves (selective presentation, power, control); all are ‘defended’ because of their ego. It does not seem problematic for Walker that each of the four ego typologies he identifies results in the same human condition of defensiveness.
In general, I found myself disappointed with this source. Per Walker’s definition, I have a passion for aiding the development of undefended pastoral leadership through coaching networks. My disappointment is Walker seemed to develop a construct from his research and then tried to reinforce the application of his construct through a set of repetitious stories throughout his Undefended Leader trilogy. However, I did appreciate and connect with certain observations and nuggets that Walker raised.
First and foremost, Walker recognizes that leadership is far more about who you are rather than what you do. When will we ever really learn this in the church? Character always trumps competence. Walker contends that trust and power are two essential threads that tend to define who the leader is. Refreshingly, Walker contends the moral authority can only be formed out of the experience of personal sacrifice, which includes struggle and loss. Therefore, the most unprecedented historical, global leaders demonstrated their legacy of leadership in the later years of their lives (e.g., Churchill at 65 and Moses at 80). Wow, there might be hope for me yet!
Another concept that Walker highlighted was the interconnection between the “front stage and the backstage.” These private/public or outside/inside couplets are intrinsically linked in the leader’s life. Walker contends they display a reciprocal or inverse relationship so that (sometimes eventually) what happens on one stage drives what happens on the other. The leader moves from defended to undefended leadership when both stages are embraced and allow others to see.
I especially appreciated Walker calling out the weaknesses of “servant leadership.” It has become idolized within the church without recognizing its inherent liabilities. These include volunteers being unable to give up their roles, those who require eternal affirmation or approval, the inability to receive, and the eventual resentment for what has been given. I especially connected with the inability to receive. For myself and many other leaders, we have great difficulty in being served by (and asking help from!) others and receiving their life-giving affirmation and appreciation. Our false sense of modesty and calling cuts us off from the intervention of the Spirit through others. Without receiving, we inevitably fall into resentment and bitterness.
Walker also wisely points out the reality that no single one of his constructed eight leadership strategies is sufficient in itself. That is one size; one model does not fit all contexts. What made Churchill effective from 1940-45, proved to be ineffective following the war. What made Jimmy Carter ineffective during his White House term, proved to make him a globally recognized moral authority since then. Therefore, Walker contends that a leader can and should learn to adopt different strategies as appropriate and use power to achieve different effects, that is, developing the skills that enable mobility in leadership.
In my work with pastors, I welcome Walker’s contention for developing skills that enable mobility of leadership. Perhaps, this would fall within Ron Heifetz’s definition of adaptive leadership skills. However, this is extremely difficult to learn and practice. In conclusion, Walker proposes three facets of freedom as keys to leadership mobility: freedom from the need to be great, freedom to be fully available, and freedom to lead with nothing to lose. Perhaps, at this stage of my life and ministry, I can now approach these three facets of freedom. I am most thankful Walker has provided us this jewel of freedom for our consideration and practice.
 Simon P. Walker, (2015), “Thinking, straight or true?”, Retrieved 3 February 2016.
 Chris Ducker, Leading Out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership, Redcliff College, Encounters Mission Journal, Issue 39, Book Review 3.
 Simon P. Walker, The Undefended Leader (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions Ltd.), 9-13.
 Walker, The Undefended Leader, 32-37.
 Walker, The Undefended Leader, 113-114.
Walker, The Undefended Leader, 289-291.
 Walker, The Undefended Leader, 303-304.
11 responses to “Undefended Leader Nuggets”
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Loved reading your post this week. I enjoyed this reading for many of the same ones you pointed out. What was your take on his definition on the goal of leadership: to enable people to take responsibility My belief is that leadership is concerned with the task of helping people to move towards fully mature, responsible personhood.
I appreciate your comments. I would agree with Walker’s definition that leadership is being responsible for another. It would seem your perspective is the definition of pastoring others. As we have tried to parse out many other times, perhaps this is the nuance of pastoring versus general leadership. Hope this helps.
Thanks, Harry. Freedom is such an important topic this week and one that I don’t know that we talk about enough. I wonder if we really grasp what it is? Having moral authority, an identity settled in an approval source (our Creator) outside of those watching, and growing through trial so that we can serve before we lead does set us free from the tyranny of others’ opinions and even our own personal expectations. I think Jesus as our prototype is such a beautiful expression of freedom. I wonder how many pastors would say they really live free in this regard?
Very thoughtful and well said! I think even of those who would say they live free, they would be surprised at their own feelings when a given crisis should arise. Perhaps this is why Walker alluded in his examples that “freedom” by leaders is often (or perhaps only) lived after years of suffering and struggle. Walker seems to illustrate by his leader examples, that undefended leadership is reached later in life. I wonder what that says about older (or “retired”) pastors/leaders like us and what we (now) may have to offer the church?
Thank you Harry for your post. I appreciate your insight given your coaching experience. It is good to have other perspectives on what we read by those in the field. I like that you pointed out nuggets since it is always the goal to get something out of each book.
Thanks so much for your kind words of encouragement! Truthfully, I am always looking for nuggets to take away (a bit like fast food!) Many blessings.
Excellent review Harry. I agree that Walker appears to have forced his research on to historical actors across recent history. Likewise, I was a little concerned at the lack of nuance between defensiveness and Friedmans differentiation. If you remove differentiation, then something must replace it. All the characters that he cites as examples of defensiveness were people paced in extraordinary political contexts and defensiveness in their setting could also be seen as ‘adequate defence’ at the time. Though I cannot profess to know much about them, they were the most incredible people who I would prefer to see as mostly differentiated (they knew who they were) in the chaos of their time. However, Walker does offer a number of takeaways that coexist with Friedman that I found helpful to think about. As for his three facets of freedom in leadership, as I get older, they are becoming more obvious – perhaps our diminishing mortality and increasing experience set leadership in its proper perspective. Thanks for writing so well.
Thanks so much for your kind words of encouragement. How would you see Friedman’s differentiation and Walker’s leading as an undefended leader should work together? Thanks so much for your thoughts.
Great post, Harry. Thank you for reminding us that leadership is more about who we are than what we do. It seems this is a life-lesson needed desperately for many ministry leaders. Your work is so valuable!
You are most kind. Actually, if I can encourage and affirm leaders like yourself (a leader of leaders), I will have served the kingdom well. Lead on without fear!
Harry, you are a gift to your profession – and to others! You mentioned Walker’s three elements of great leadership: freedom from the need to be great, freedom to be fully available, and freedom to lead with nothing to lose. Hate to tell you this, my friend, but you are already there! You are humble, always available for others (even during your own difficulties in life), and a leader ready to continue to learn. Thank you for being YOU!