Who are the leaders of the future? How are they formed? What is their relationship with power? And how do they make decisions? These are the questions addressed by Simon Walker in his trilogy compilation on leadership, The Undefended Leader.
As both an Anglican clergyman and Oxford academic, Walker is concerned with the formation of future church leaders and the development of moral leadership. This particular work was born out his experience with “defended leaders” who see others either as commodities to be exploited or threats to be overcome. In contrast, the undefended leader is one who surrenders defensiveness and embraces a trusting posture. This is the kind of leader who influences by leveraging power in ways that “enable others to take responsibility.”
His thesis is that effectiveness in leadership begins with inner character: “leadership is about who you are, not what you know or what skills you have.” He supports his thesis in three subsequent volumes. The first explores the question, How are egos shaped through childhood and how does that impact the way a leader operates? In his second volume Walker explores the question, How do different kinds of leaders exercise power differently? Finally, in Volume Three, he explores the question: How do leaders make wise, far-sighted decisions in the midst of a constantly changing world? Put together, The Undefended Leader offers a description of who Christians leaders must become and a blueprint for how they might get there.
Christian mystic, priest, and academic, Henri Nouwen also wrote a book about the making of the leaders of the future. I can hear the echoes of Nouwen in the words of Walker. Titled, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Nouwen identifies three core movements of tomorrow’s leader:
- From Relevance to Prayer
- From Popularity to Ministry
- From Leading to Being Led
Let’s allow these two books to be in conversation with one another as we seek to become undefended leaders or, in Nouwen’s case, leaders of the future.
From Relevance to Prayer
In The Undefended Leader, Walker writes: “Freedom comes when we are concerned only about the opinion of the One in the audience who truly matters.” When we live for the applause of others, we not only commodify those whose applause we seek, but we exercise leadership haphazardly, reactively, and irresponsibly. We become imprisoned by fear and by the pursuit of the ever-allusive goal of relevance. To achieve relevance is to sacrifice the goal of true leadership: “to set people free.” The undefended leader, according to Walker, is so confident in Whose she is that she is not held captive by the opinions of others.
In In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen writes: “The Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.” The pursuit of relevance in the eyes of many distracts leaders from the primary task of prayerfully receiving and revealing God’s love to a world that’s desperate for it. As leaders of the future learn to live for the audience of One, “the desire to be relevant and successful will gradually disappear, and our only desire will be to say with our whole being to our brothers and sisters of the human race, ‘You are loved.’” The leaders of the future, according to Nouwen, will trade the energy spent on pursuing relevance for energy spent prayerfully receiving and declaring belovedness.
From Popularity to Ministry
In The Undefended Leader, Walker writes: “Leadership is a task that occurs at every level of life and in every kind of sphere … Leadership is a way of offering life to the world, in order to draw life out of the world. As such, it is a spiritual activity.” If the point of leadership is truly to “set people free,” than it is a communal task…a spiritual task…a ministry of interconnection and interdependence. Understood as such, undefended leaders reject self-gratification at the expense of others and choose, instead, a life marked by self-sacrifice on behalf of others.
In In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen writes: “Somehow we have come to believe that good leadership requires a safe distance from those we are called to lead….But how can we lay down our life for those with whom we are not even allowed to enter into a deep, personal relationship?” Proximity, Nouwen argues, is a spiritual activity in which the proverbial fig leaves we try to hide behind fall away and, in the ministry of confession and forgiveness, we (leaders and those we lead) become known to one another. The leaders of the future, according to Nouwen, acknowledge that they “are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for.
From Leading to Being Led
In The Undefended Leader, Walker writes: “I often lookout for people with exceptional listening skills – the ability to sit quietly without interrupting or interpreting, to notice little things and to reserve judgment. These, rather than the confidence of power, are the things I would look for in a potential leader.” The defended leader is an insecure leader. He is one who lives addicted to the sound of his own ideas and consumed by the pressure to solve every problem. The undefended leader, according to Walker, is one who is attentive to what the Spirit is doing in her midst and who cultivates the space for solutions to emerge.
In In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen writes: “Through the discipline of contemplative prayer, Christians leaders can learn to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them. Contemplative prayer is a practice that builds our capacity to sit quietly, in stillness, and listen “without interrupting or interpreting” for what the Spirit is saying to us. Rather than a practice solely reserved for a leader’s waking or waning moments, contemplative prayer cultivates in leaders of the future the ability to listen longer than feels comfortable.
Both Nouwen and Walker agree that ours is a world that calls for a different kind of Christian leader. Perhaps the undefended leader that Walker speaks of and the leader of the future that Nouwen calls for can best be described in a vision for Christian leadership that still awaits realization. It’s the image of “a leader with outstretched hands, who chooses a life of downward mobility.”
 Simon Walker. The Undefended Leader Trilogy. Self-published, 2011. 153.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 103.
 Ibid., 124.
 Henri Nouwen. In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. Crossroad, 1992. 30.
 Ibid., 41.
 Walker, 154.
 Nouwen, 61.
 Ibid., 61-62.
 Walker, 158.
 Nouwen, 45.
 Ibid., 92-93.