Leadership and Power

by Peter Corney

Image Credit: www.wilpf.org/node/86
Image Credit: www.wilpf.org/node/86

There is no effective leadership without power. By power I mean the ability to influence people organizations and structures, the ability to effect change. I will call this ‘real power.’ Such power can be acquired and used legitimately or illegitimately. Formal authority and power are connected but power can be exercised without formal or appointed authority, in such cases it develops its own informal authority. Formal or appointed authority can be without real power and as such is therefore ineffective.

(A) How is power acquired legitimately?

  1. By valid and proper election or appointment such as an election by voters or appointment by a legitimate authority. (Where the criteria used is appropriate gift, ability and some of the other factors listed below real power may also accrue to the person)
  2. By the recognition by others of a persons good character – their integrity, honesty, humility, consistency, commitment, servant hood.
  3. By charisma. Not in the NT sense but in the indefinable attraction that some people posses, the ability to inspire and attract.
  4. By giftedness and talent. More related to the NT gifts of ministry. Eg: Teaching, preaching, organising, leadership, wisdom, relational gifts, etc.
  5. By developing and communicating powerful ideas that people respond to.
  6. By developing vision. This is related to (5)
  7. By communication skills, persuasiveness.
  8. By the ability to engage and involve others skills, gifts, creativity and energy.
  9. By building and earning trust.
  10. By constructing effective structures and organizations.

The empowerment of others is one of the most constructive uses of power. Healthy leaders who have real power and use it well empower others. This multiplies both the effect and the extent of the legitimate use of power. (This is related to (8) above.)

In a fallen world power is often acquired illegitimately and frequently misused. There is a “will to power” in fallen human nature that can be traced back to our original rejection of God’s authority – “You will be like God” were the tempters words. In almost every group a struggle for power and control is present at some time, and some would say, in every relationship. In groups the struggle emerges strongly if there is a vacuum of leadership, poor process and structure or weak leadership. Someone will always seek to exercise power in these situations either out of frustration for the group’s purpose or out of personal opportunism and the desire for power. Insecure leaders create a power vacuum or become over controlling as a way of protecting themselves. This in turn leads to negative reactions and challenges to their authority or passivity and withdrawal by members.

(B) Why and how is power misused?

  1. Through the desire to dominate and control.
  2. Through the fear of others controlling us – control or be controlled.
  3. Through insecurity.
  4. Through pride and the desire to inflate our own importance.
  5. Through the desire to reinforce prejudice and avoid challenge or change,eg: fundamentalism, racism and xenophobia – the fear of the different other.
  6. Through intense or unbalanced conviction, leading to the coercion and control of others. The conviction may be true or false. Leaders of extreme political ideologies, sect and cult leaders fall into this category and sometimes also mainstream religious leaders. [“Convictions can be more dangerous enemies of truth than lies” (1)  “Beware of the well lit prison of a single idea.” (2) ]
  7. Through leaders putting themselves above or outside critique, accountability or due process.
  8. Through the devious manipulation of legitimate processes.
  9. By doing the right thing by wrong means.
  10. Through bullying and threatening others.
  11. By “spiritual blackmail”. This is when the leader claims to have a privileged insight into God’s will and so any resistance to his ideas is resisting God. By controlling others through claiming to have special spiritual insight into a person and using that to control or direct them in a way that effectively removes decision and choice from them. This is also a characteristic of sect and cult leaders.
  12. By over controlling the flow of legitimate discussion and disagreement.
  13. By manipulating peoples vulnerabilities and fears to achieve an outcome. Political leaders sometimes use this to reinforce prejudice, racism, hatred and xenophobia. Religious leaders can do it by threatening the people with God’s disapproval or judgment unless they follow a certain line espoused by the leader.
  14. By playing on the fear of rejection and the desire to belong. There is always a tension between healthy and unhealthy Christian community. Without a sufficiently strong sense of belonging a group has no cohesion or strength. On the other hand if it is too insular or controlling it becomes unhealthy. The key is the creation of a climate where everyone feels free, and is free, to choose and make their own decisions about belonging. A healthy community has permeable and flexible boundaries at the edge but very clear commitments at the center.
  15. Through the desire to be served, feted, privileged, given special treatment and favors’ rather than to serve those they lead.

(C) The results of the use and abuse of power

(1) The illegitimate use.

The illegitimate and abusive exercise of power is immensely destructive. We can all easily recall tragic examples in the political field. Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and numerous African states, the latest being Zimbabwe. We all know a family somewhere with an abusive parent or overbearing and controlling spouse. Most of us at some time or other have experienced a bullying or manipulative boss. We have all experienced peer groups controlled in the cruelest manner by a dominant teenage de facto leader. There is the teacher who uses their power over certain pupils to humiliate and control them, and there are teachers who have received the same treatment from a powerful group of students! Then there are the Church communities that have been destroyed by the abuse of power by leaders.

There is also the failure of power. That is the failure to exercise it when it is ones responsibility. Many organizations and Churches have been hurt, weakened or died because their leaders failed to exercise their legitimate power. Out of fear of failure or conflict, lack of imagination, or laziness or loss of vision they fail to exercise their power. There are as many organizations and churches hurt by this as by the abuse of power.

(2) The legitimate use.

The result of the legitimate use of power is as constructive as its abuse is destructive.  Organizations are created that educate, grow, heal and develop people. People are empowered by the legitimate use of power. Businesses are developed that provide employment and manufacture goods or provide services that we need. Scientific research is carried out that produces new drugs to heal diseases. Churches are planted and grow and people are led to Christ and developed as healthy disciples.  Government exists and at its best provides order and justice to our society and constructs the infrastructure we need of health and transport and education and to redistribute wealth through taxation to the poor and disadvantaged. One could go on! None of this is possible without the legitimate exercise of “real power”.

(D) Power and institutions

Frequently in institutions, particularly those in decline, the power of appointed authority becomes in effect limited to the rules and regulations of the institution because for various reasons it has lost the ability to energize, renew or change the institution. Often it is those who have acquired real power (see (A) 2-10 above) and informal authority, but who are outside the formal authority structure of the institution, who are the only ones able to renew or change a dieing institution. This may be done by those with real power taking over the old authority at the centre. This is usually resisted and difficult! The other alternative is working from the edge of the institution by new initiatives that ignore or bend the rules or move outside the comfort zone of the institution. This is usually disapproved of by the appointed authority. Rarely, but occasionally, the institution comes to recognize these initiatives as positive and embrace them as a means of renewal. This response is usually very delayed and it is often too late for the institution.

The original purpose of the institution may also be renewed and continued in a fresh way by those with real power and informal authority leaving the institution and creating a parallel or competing new work.

Footnotes: (1)   F. Nietzsche  (2)   G. K Chesterton