Book review and reflections: The Undefended Leader

This should have been my must read a decade ago when I became Senior Minister of Poynton Baptist, but it hadn’t been published. The Undefended Leader trilogy (each was a short book now published in one volume) has become well used in ministerial training / leadership courses and is definitely worth reading.

The undefended leader contains a couple of key ideas.  First that our leadership is similar to a stage presentation:

We each have a front stage – where we present ourselves and perform to our audiences; chairing meetings, exuding confidence, presenting ideas etc. As leaders we invite others to believe in and to take part in the drama. But we also have a backstage – a place for doubts, insecurities and ambiguities. This is the place where the scripts are written and ideas tested out.  A leader finds themselves leading two lives, a public front stage one and a private backstage one; the two lives connected either in ways that are healthy or ways that are unhealthy.

My own experience over the last 15 years is that in my early years at Poynton there was a growing disconnect between the two – and when the gap became a gulf it severely impacted my health and leadership. However, freedom comes when we start to allow people to see the mess as well as the glossy image; then our backstage can become less a place of fear and more a place for fruitful exploration. Screenshot_2019-08-01 Simon-Walker-DProf-Context-Statement-2 55 8-corrected-1 pdf

The second key idea is to locate the roots of the defended self in our response to trust. While power and control are key elements within leadership understanding the architecture of our ego is key to seeing the route to undefendedness and our ability to trust ourselves and trust others. If we have too little trust we become suspicious and oversensitive. If we trust others but not ourselves we become anxious, if we trust ourselves but not others we become driven.

The book explains this all in some depth over several chapters. Nevertheless the key point for me is our ability to recognise our defences. Acknowledging the ‘damaging’ experiences from childhood and elsewhere has helped me understand the things that drive me and why I respond to some things the way I do. While I doubt reading the book will give you all the answers it gives a helpful way of thinking about these things and pondering what it is that we are defending and protecting.

The third key idea is not just to look at front stage or back stage but at the combining forces that power leadership. In Walker’s view as well as the front / back stage there are strong / weak forces and expanding / consolidating forces. For example a strong force would be pulling a child out of danger, while a weak force would be instigating a listening exercise so peoples’ views are heard. An expanding force looks to new areas, better results, where as a consolidating force seeks to deepen shared connections, establish consensus etc. The combinations of these three create different leadership styles; pace setting, visionary, self-emptying, consensual, commanding, serving.image-asset

Most leadership roles require us to operate in different ways at different times but it is helpful to think about our preferred leadership styles as well as to validate other styles which may not suit us so well.

For myself I think I am at my most healthy when I’m acting as a consensual, visioning leader. I’m also quite comfortable being foundational and serving (in Walker’s terms) but while I enjoy commanding or pace setting I find it draining and too much self-emptying or affiliative leadership is a struggle.

Real life doesn’t fit so neatly into these categories, and specific skills and competencies are as important in most situations as leadership style, nevertheless I am a better leader when I’m operating out of a healthy place. And I’m a better team leader when I’m able to harness the different styles of others, creating an environment where we all thrive.

Currently I’m seeking to get to grips with a new challenge, with a different range of expectations and leadership needs. And while most of the lessons in this book were things I needed to learn 15 years ago a new role offers an opportunity to break free from some patterns of the past and to think about healthy ways to lead in a new context.

If you want a book that helps you think about you leadership and how to be a better leader and true to who you are, this is worth a read.

Simon P Walker, The Undefended Leader (Piquant, 2010)

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