Wednesday, October 07, 2009

the undefended leader (a)

In recent months I have been discovering a treasure...

Back in 1997, in the months leading up to taking on the principalship at Carey, God reassured me in His call through a (secular!) book called The Leadership Challenge (Kouzes and Posner). Its impact on me was enormous. Now in the months after finishing as Principal at Carey a similar sort of reassurance has been flowing from God. I've been looking for something to help me process those years in senior leadership and a colleague in Langham pointed me towards this treasure.

It is the "undefended leader" trilogy by Simon Walker. Three brief, clear, fresh books on the nature of leadership. Leading out of Who You Are (I), Leading with Nothing to Lose (II), and Leading with Everything to Give (III). I have read the first two on recent plane trips and am saving #3 for the next trip. Can't wait...

Walker had me by the end of paragraph One in chapter One of volume One. "Leadership is about who you are, not what you know or what skills you have. Why is this? There are two reasons: leadership is about trust and it is about power (5)". Kouzes and Posner had pointed me in this direction. In all the years at Carey I tried to give priority to building-trust and sharing-power wherever and whenever I could. I consider it to be the essence of leadership. The best times as a leader were when I could see people flourishing within this framework. The worst times were when I could sense people misreading my intentions in these two areas. So ... to read this so early and so baldly in this trilogy both reassured me and pulled me in for the full trilogy. I have not been disappointed.

Walker recognises that every single one of us, not just some of us, have emotional needs. The message of Volume One is that "unless those needs are met in the context of a relationship with an Other who accepts us unconditionally, we will seek to meet them from human relationships around us. When a leader does this, she starts to exploit her followers as a surrogate source of affection, power, control, belonging or whatever it may be she needs. Her followers cease to be people she is freely serving and instead, to some extent, become commodities she needs and uses. The transaction between leader and followers becomes corrupted and, rather than freedom, it results in a kind of collusion. (II, 144)". When this "Other" is in place it brings a sense of identity, security, belonging, and affection which leads to the quality of 'undefendedness', enabling a leader to be truly free. The bulk of Volume One is given to describing the different 'egos' formed in childhood and how they impact the way a leader operates. He names them as the Shaping, the Defining, the Adapting, and the Defending 'Leadership Egos'.

The books have helpful images and tables - none more useful than his distinction between 'front stage' and 'back stage' forces at work in leadership. The front stage is what is explicit, visible, on the surface while the back stage is what is implicit, hidden or buried from sight. Walker's insights into the way these two stages inter-relate is so useful - food for compelling discussion in any mentoring relationship.

A highlight of Volume One is ch 13 - "Leading as a Child": (a) maintaining a light and playful touch; (b) retaining the capcity to wonder; (c) strengthening the bonds of trust; (d) learning to take responsibility. So also is ch 15 - "Setting Undefended Goals": (a) enabling people to embrace struggle; (b) enabling people to both develop and 'lay down' their skills; (c) enabling people to identify and embrace their vocations; (d) enabling people to 'know the moment'.

Some quotes I want to retain (blogs are great filing systems!):
"a leader is one who takes responsibility for people other than himself" (I, 17)

"Freedom comes when we start to allow people to see not only the glossy image - front stage - but the mess as well - back stage" (I, 33)

"If you want to know what the leader is like, you should look at the community around them" (I, 44-45)

"Only when a leader is willing to follow someone else's script can collaboration truly be said to be taking place" (I, 46)

"Freedom comes when we are concerned only about the opinion of the one in the audience who truly matters" (I, 103)

"The choices you make to live an undefended life, to lead as an undefended leader, are not made for the sake of balance or wellbeing; they are made for a greater good. And that greater good is to set people free" (I, 124)

"Nature builds in struggle as an essential part of the formation and development of healthy life (and leaders)" (I, 140)

"The only proper goal of leadership is this: to enable people to take responsibility" (I,153)

"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" (I, 154)

"I myself believe that all leaders should lay down their roles every five years or so. A period in which we are shorn of our power is good for us and reveals whether we are truly free" (I, 156)

"I have found that many of the skills I have possessed that I have also let go have been given back to me, but with a power they did not have before" (I, 157)

"I often look out for people with exceptional listening skills - the ability to sit quietly without interrupting or interpreting, to notice little things and to reserve judgement. These, rather than the confidence of power, are the things I would look for in a potential leader" (I, 158)

to be continued...

nice chatting



Tash McGill said...

You're the 2nd person in as many weeks to reference these. Methinks I should pursue this avenue!

Paul said...

Yes indeed, Tash! It is the freshness and the simplicity of the ideas that grabbed me - not to mention a little thumbing-the-nose at a few prevailing ideas on leadership along the way as well :)

Brook Warner said...

Ive read these and really enjoyed them. One thing however that i've found is the series of complex and interwoven metaphors gets a bit much. There is front stage, back stage, defended and undefended, shaping ego and controlling ego, consolidating and expanding, active and passive.

Another book on leadership I have enjoyed is "First Break all the Rules" by Marcus Buckingham