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WalLead 07-09-104

Leading Out of Who You Are

Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership


Simon P. Walker

Piquant Editions, 2007, 161 pp., ISBN 1-903689-43-0



Simon Walker teaches at Oxford University and runs courses for social leaders in the corporate, education and not-for-profit sectors.  This is the first of three books on leadership.  Undefended leaders are those whose life and philosophy have involved deliberate acts of weakness and courageous self-sacrifice, such as Dietrich Bonheoffer, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Mother Teresa. (4) 


"Leadership is about who you are, not what you know or what skills you have." (5)  "The leader represents safety and security.  People follow him because they trust him."  "A healthy leader-follower dynamic is characterized by the experience of trust between them.  This is the glue that bonds them together." (6)


"For the leader, trust is everything: without it, leadership may begin to resort to unhealthy strategies to ensure that people follow."  Moral authority is what gives a leader her ability to lead.  Undefended leaders have it in abundance.  It has to do with the kind of life one has lived.  Often it is acquired through personal struggle and loss, through the fire of personal experience in which character is tested and refined.  Integrity is put under scrutiny and motives, commitment and dedication are tested and exposed.  Moral courage is revealed. (7,9) 


For such leaders the battles have been within their inner selves.  Having defeated their inner demons of anger and thirst for power, they are "free of the need to dominate, to conquer and oppress, to consume, to acquire…because they are free within themselves." (9)


The leader lives in a hostile world and develops various mechanisms to protect himself.  "Leaders often experience three things that other people experience only to a lesser degree: idealization, idealism and unmet emotional needs." (15)


Those who have taken up the burden of leadership are often idealized by the rest of us.  We turn them into the ideal heroes we need them to be.  Thus the leader cannot share his internal struggles, because no one will allow him to.  (16)


The leader holds onto the ideal, that which drives her.  She doesn't want to be reminded of how bad things are and sometimes prefers to live in blissful ignorance, traveling alone ahead of the crowd, on the margins, feeling a sense of alienation.  (17)


Leaders care about the welfare of others and carry other people's feelings; often sacrificing meeting their own needs for the sake of others.  When a leader does not meet his own needs, he often makes up the psychological deficit through his service to and approval from followers.  It is difficult for someone who has given up much for others not to be possessive of the rewards they achieve. (19) 


According to a study by Manfred Kets de Vries (2001), 70% of executives suffer some kind of heavy fall at some stage in their career. (20)


One strategy of defense is to separate the front and back stage.

We learn to present on our front stage whatever will win approval. That's where we perform for our audience.  This is "impression management." (24-26)


Lots of things happen backstage, things that can't appear on frontstage.  The leader's idealized life is front stage; the less-than-ideal is backstage.  It is the repository for the doubts, confusions, ambiguities and defeats.  The front stage shows conviction and confidence.  Struggle and uncertainty are kept backstage. (26)


This reality means the leader lives two lives, a public life and a private life.  The private life may employ healthy or unhealthy strategies to meet personal needs and resolve problems. Thus, our front and back stages work together in our complex psychological make-up to contrive ways that enable us to cope.  If there is a problem or deficit on one stage, often the other can offer a compensating or displacing solution."  (28)


The more attention we pay to one of the stages, the less conscious we will be of the other. (28)  Further, the two stages cannot be kept completely separate.  "What goes on on one stage will always make itself visible in some way or another on the other.  "Very often a leader's backstage life will leak onto their front stage, and this is particularly so when the front stage requires a high degree of emotional discipline and other-person-centeredness." (29)  The alternatives to a leak are an explosion or a collapse. (30)


"What lies behind the creation of a front and a back stage is the sense that we can't entirely trust our audience, and so we need to manage what they see of us."  "When we make ourselves vulnerable, we risk rejection and judgment." (32)


"People only become undefended when they feel safe."  "Freedom comes when we start to allow people to see not only the glossy image but the mess as well.  This also means that our back stage ceases to be a place of fear, containing all the mess that we avoid, and instead becomes available for fruitful exploration." (33)


Another strategy for defense is power.  Influence is power, the ability to effect change.  Power is a pragmatic thing, neither good nor bad: the issue is how it is used. (37)  Power is exercised in every situation: the most dangerous kind of power is that which is unacknowledged.  "The most dangerous kind of person is the one with a great deal of power who denies that they have any, or who denies that power is a fundamental factor in their leadership.  This is the strategy of what I call 'defended' leaders." (40)


A third strategy of defense is control.  Control is not a bad thing but wanting to be in control can become a destructive disorder.  (42)  "Control offers us an illusion of escape from the chaotic world we inhabit…."  "Mostly, we exercise control in order to make the world more familiar to us."  It makes us feel safer.  Being in leadership provides the power and resources to structure your environment.  Control often prevents leaders from working collaboratively with others. (45) "Only when the leader is willing to follow someone else's script can collaboration truly be said to be taking place." (46)


"All of us create worlds in our own image, but the difference for leaders is that they have the positional authority to do so.  …they have the mandate and the power to impose their personality on the community around them."  "The community becomes an extension of us, and our followers become performers on our stage, using our script to tell our story."  "For us, therefore, there is a moral responsibility and an ethical imperative to know ourselves…for the benefit of our followers.  And not only to know ourselves but to be free from our selves…freedom to make decisions and choose courses of action that in the end may lead to personal loss rather than personal gain."  (47)


"Leaders who cling to personal power and are not free always, in the end, become corrupted." (47)  "The truth is that, until we are set free from the need to get a favourable response from our audience, everyone concerned, leaders and followers, will be trapped."  "Accountability and submission are crucial factors in leadership: no leader should be without them."(48)


The Roots of the Defended Self

Ultimately we are defending our ego.  Our ego is primarily shaped during two periods of our life: in early childhood by our relationship with our parents and in adolescence by the relationships with our peers.  The way in which trust is experienced in these relationships is key.  Children are vulnerable and need protecting.  Relationships are our ropes of protection.  They attach us to powerful figures and provide limits.  In the absence of strong ropes, children develop robust patterns of 'self-holding' and 'self-promoting' that are remarkably difficult to change as adults. (54)


Children develop working models of how they expect people to treat them.  The root of their defendedness as adult leaders lies in the experience of trust they experienced as a child.  (58-9)


Over-Confidence and Paternalism characterize a leadership style the author names "The Shaping Leadership Ego."  The individual has a high level of trust in self and others and has a strong sense of security.


"There is a lazy assumption widespread in the West that low self-esteem lies at the root of antisocial behaviour."  "In a large-scale review of research literature in 1996, Baumeister, Smart and Boden found that the evidence overwhelmingly contradicted the theory that low self-esteem causes violence."  "…the decisive cause of aggression and violence is not low self-esteem but a perceived threat to the ego.  Contrary to popular belief, too much self-esteem can be a bad thing." (64)


The Shaping Ego is prone to self-inflation.  This generates confidence, sometimes unrealistic confidence, that rejects contrary feedback.  "Where others see threats, they see opportunities."  They tend to rescue people.  "Shapers tend to define their own reality.  This gives them their ability to survive in tough situations that would overwhelm others…."  "Shapers do things their own way and believe that others should simply join them."  They also have a tendency to unrealism.  "Frontstage Shapers" give an impression of self-assurance, supreme confidence, even swagger.   "Backstage Shapers" shows up big time in the Mafia culture.  Insiders are safe and privileged.  All others are ruled by suspicion and fear.  (65-68)


Drivenness and Ambition characterize the "Defining Leadership Ego." Their world is predominantly a critical and judgmental place.  This occurs when childhood expectations for performance are clear and the child is continually encouraged to measure up.  Attachments are strong but conditional.  The grownup becomes her own critic, trying to measure up, trying to win.  She learns to trust herself but not others.  "She is defined by what she achieves, and afraid of what she can't." (71)  Power, prestige and reputation come from accomplishments.  Avoidance of failure is avoidance of rejection. 


This leader creates an atmosphere characterized by performance, control, fear, avoiding risk.  Failure isn't tolerated.  "The current shareholder-capital system of our publicly quoted companies is, in essence, a Defining Culture.  All that matters is performance…." (74) 


Such frontstage leaders invest huge amounts of energy and work hard, and are driven by anxiety, never able to relax.  Sometimes they crash.  Everything is on the front stage.  On the back stage, there is little reserve.  Backstage leaders stay behind the scenes, out of the limelight, fearing public failure.  They eliminate everything from their lives where success is in doubt.  (74-77)


Anxiety and Over-Responsibility characterize the Adapting Leadership Ego.  This leader over trusts others and under trusts himself.  He grew up with fragile and insecure trust relationships and may compensate by making people laugh or becoming useful.  Confrontation and conflict were not appropriately modeled so he may be a peacemaker, having learned to avoid setting off an explosion.


Such a frontstage leader may seek attention through performance.  He needs others' eyes on him.  He may be the one who ensures everyone is OK and tries to smooth over conflict.  He may become a problem solver, even making a drama out of a crisis: fixing things assures his worth.  The darker side is he may need continual reassurance and become a high-maintenance person.


Backstage adapters may develop emotional containment, never expressing their feelings, suppressing their own needs and serving others.  This can leave a legacy of anxiety, resentment, self-loathing and exhaustion.  Leadership is a daily battle; actually they follow more than lead. Their identity consists of giving to others.  (79-86)


Suspicion and over-sensitivity characterize the Defending Leadership Ego.  It arises out of a childhood that produces little trust in either self or others. Disorganized and unreliable emotional attachments are increasingly characterizing childhood situations as families suffer over busyness and breakdown. 


The coping strategy divides the world into the safe and unsafe.  There is nothing in between.  To protect herself she must be cautious, suspicious, and loyal to her inner circle.  Under it all she feels powerless. Such leaders gather those who are deeply loyal and are suspicious of all others.  Advice is received based on who gives it.  The key factor is trust.  We back each other up, regardless.  But if you let her down, you'll find yourself on the outside.  She is always watching for dissent.


No single pattern defines her.  Her backstage is the obverse of her frontstage.  She reveals on one stage and hides on the other.  Contradiction lies at the heart of her strategy.  She develops a concealed but real persona.  Part of her life doesn't match the rest.  This may lead to guilt because of uncharacteristic hidden behaviors.  (89-97)


"Beware the leader who has no knowledge of their own failings and who demands excessive purity!  Behind the curtain may lurk devils too dark to show themselves."  "The root cause of our defendedness [is] right under our noses.  It is our very selves that we are defending." (97)


It is possible for people to change, but not through willing themselves to change.  The solution is not inside.  "The root of our problem [is] in the formation of our relationships with others."  "The problem lies not within us, but between us and others."  "The solution must lie, in fact, in locating relationships with the world, with others and perhaps, uniquely, with Another, in which we are both trusted and able to trust."  (98)


Part III unveils The Secret of the Undefended Leader, including the freedom to fail (locating the source of approval), the freedom to give, leading as a child, the formation of moral authority, and setting goals.


"Freedom comes from knowing that you are approved of."  "…someone is rooting for you …whose opinion you value more than anyone else's.  You are secure." (102)  "We will defend ourselves against the loss of the asset we value most.  Only the person who is secure against the loss of all these things can be truly undefended, truly free." (103)


"Human relationships are simply not big enough.  They are not strong enough to survive death, or true enough to give us a proper sense of perspective, a proper sense of ourselves." (105)


For the Shaping Ego: "Key transforming truth: The world is neither as safe nor as unsafe as you think."  "Stop trying to rescue people."  "Allow feedback to touch you." (106, 107)


For the Defining Ego: "Key transforming truth: You are not as successful as you think you are--but you cannot be as unsuccessful as you fear." (107)  "Stop wanting to win at all costs."  "Enjoy the moment and stay in it." (108)


For the Adapting Ego: "Key transforming truth: Relationships are not as fragile as you believe." "Say no."  "Trust yourself."  (109) 


For the Defending Ego: "Key transforming truth: You are safer than you realize."  "Stay in the relationship."  "Trust others." (110)


"If it is true that there is a personal God, who offers me love, affection, intimacy, acceptance, approval, simply because it is his nature and character to do so, then it is possible for me to receive from this source and so be free from needing others to give me these things.  This is like discovering a spring of fresh water that can begin to well up within you."  "If this is the case, then it is possible that our leadership can change from being something that always in some way takes from others--as may happen to the servant leader--to being something that gives to others freely, in undefended generosity." (118)


Leadership at its purest is concerned with truth.  "It is a matter of seeing something more truly than others around you." (124)


"While others are still urgently straining away, towards some unclear goal, the leader is the one who stops…waits.  And as she waits, she listens, and feels, and looks.  And as she does so, shapes begin to emerge and the scene begins to become a little clearer."  "As leaders, the crucial quality we need is the courage to stop.  The courage to wait and be still.  While everyone around us is clamouring for a decision, the leader waits until she is confident and clear." (125)


Learn from children.  Be playful.  Stimulate wonder.  Strengthen trust.  Take responsibility. 


"Children trust.  Implicitly."  "…if we lose the ability to trust we lose the basis of all human relating."  "Remember what it feels like to be trusted.  It feels good, doesn't it?  As leaders, we can give that experience to another person this very week, this very day, this very hour." (134)


Take responsibility.  "Children tend to have a straightforward morality and instinctive senses of right and wrong, duty and loyalty.  It is as we grow up that these may get confused." (135)  "The thing about taking responsibility as a leader is that it often breeds responsibility in those around you." (136)


Moral authority is formed via struggle. "Nature builds in struggle as an essential part of the formation and development of healthy life."   How could we develop endurance, fortitude, courage, determination and patience without struggle?  Struggle may be physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.  What makes the difference is our choices, how we respond.  Will the knife cripple or shape us?  Our path becomes our destiny.  (139-142)  Moral authority forged in the flames is clear to all.  (149) 


Undefended goals.  The only proper goal of leadership is "to enable people to take responsibility," "helping people to move towards fully mature, responsible personhood."  This is the target.  Everthing else is secondary.  It is a human goal. Both the leader and the followers are changed.  (153) 


"Our primary task is to grow up.  It is to learn, through the experiences we are given, who we are--what it means to be courageous, what it is to serve, what it is to be loved and to love, what it is to be real, what it is to be fully human.  True leadership is leadership of ourselves and others into this kind of life…." (154)


"Leadership, therefore, 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." (154)


Fundamental goals:

       Enabling people to embrace struggle, to help them apply themselves to the problem, trust themselves, and find the resources to solve it. (154)

       Enabling people to both develop and 'lay down' their skills, to periodically to step away form their leadership roles, to let go of the perks and rewards of leadership, and give up the self-preservation of holding on to position.  (156)

       Enabling people to identify and embrace their vocations.  By giving up the leadership they have, by laying aside their personal interest, and making themselves wholly available, people can discover what they are truly called to be for the sake of others.  (157)

       Enabling people to 'know the moment,' to see beneath the surface, to read between the lines, to discern larger patterns at work.  (158)



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