“History has not been kind to Neville Chamberlain.” Malcolm Gladwell pointed this out in his book Talking to Strangers. Gladwell recounts the story of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to engage in diplomatic dialogue with the mysterious, erratic new leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler. Through their meetings, Hitler convinced Chamberlain that he was not intending to invade Poland or start a major war in Europe. He believed Hitler. Personally, if I were in Chamberlain’s shoes at the time, knowing the little information about the Führer that Chamberlain did, I would have chosen Chamberlain’s approach: avoid war, choose diplomatic engagement, talk with the man face to face, and believe him. Chamberlain did what most people do: he took him at his word and did all he could to avoid a war.
But Chamberlain’s predecessor was not “most people.” Churchill saw through Hitler. He did not believe him. He saw him for what he was: an erratic brute. In Churchill, the British people had a very different kind of leader. But they were in a very different kind of situation. And the situation suited Churchill’s leadership. Simon Walker writes, “Collaboration, discussion and consensual decision-making were foreign concepts to [Churchill].” But this, according to Walker, is the leadership force the situation required. “It was necessary for Churchill, confronting the threat of a Nazi victory in Europe.” This leadership is not sustainable for the leader or the followers. “Churchill was never as great as a peacetime party politician as he was as a national leader and statesmen in wartime.” When the crisis passes, the leader who thrives in a crisis ends up being rejected.
This highlights the need for the adaptability of a leader’s use of power based on what the situation calls for. These different exercises of power are what Simon Walker writes about in Leading with Nothing to Lose. He gives three strategies for the exercise of power. For the purpose of this post, instead of going into detail on each one, I will write about the two key leadership skills I gleaned from Walker.
Having the presence of mind to be aware of a situation, and know what force (whether front stage or back stage, strong or weak, consolidating or expanding) to utilize is, according to Walker, “the most important capacity a leader needs to develop.” Walker calls this mobility. When faced with a situation, a leader must ask “How does power need to be applied here? What do the people I am leading need in their leader?” This cannot happen when the leader is too busy to reflect on what is going on and what is required.
Freedom – Differentiation
The second skill Walker advocates for is freedom. This is very similar to Friedman’s concept of differentiation in his classic A Failure of Nerve. Walker contends,
The undefended leader is the one whose needs are met through an unconditional attachment to an Other, in which she finds identity, belonging and affection. This source of approval gives her such security that her sense of self is not defined by her success as a leader. Who she is is not determined by the response of the audience she is performing in front of. As a result, she is free to play the role of leader without having any personal interest in earning applause. Instead, she can act generously, both in attending to the needs of her audience and in serving them freely, with courage and commitment.
It is critical that a leader have a sense of self – of identity and purpose – so that they can non-anxiously and wisely face the challenges of leadership.
A Closing Thought
The strategies for using power were fascinating and helpful. The main issue I had with Walker’s book was the lack of women examples. If there was a part two of the book with all female examples, I wonder what differences we would see in the exercise of power from female leadership.
 Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know (Little, Brown, 2019). I do not know the exact page number for this quote as I recalled this from an audio book. It’s in chapter two, titled “Getting to Know der Führer.”
 Simon P. Walker, Leading with Nothing to Lose: Training in the Exercise of Power (Piquant Editions, 2013), Kindle Loc. 1470.
 Ibid. Loc. 1479.
 Ibid. Loc. 2203.
 Ibid. Loc. 1519.
 For a brief overview of Walker’s “leadership forces,” see Ibid. Loc. 527.
 Ibid. Loc. 2228.
 Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (10th Anniversary, Revised Edition) (Church Publishing, Inc., 2017).
 Walker, Leading with Nothing to Lose. Loc. 2392-2393.
 Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 185.