Power in Leadership — How Have We Misunderstood It?

With the recent newsflash on Weinstein and his abuse of the women within his reach of power, I simply have questions about organizational power. How did we get here?

With this news flash America is going crazy. The news reporters find every angle to serve Weinstein for a news inspired lunch. Yet, with all the publicity, I find very little answers to the questions that burn on my mind. Again, I ask how did we as a society get here?

How did the organizations within our country come to this place of hiding the shameful acts of violence from the people who can help stop this crushing offense? How is it possible that one man can have so much power he can stop the legal system from serving him justice? What happened to America that people within our country can be bought off so they don’t speak up for the innocent? Where did this brutal abuse of power find its way into our nation?

It is easy for me to believe this issue is out west in Hollywood and out of touch with my current reality. And yet, it is happening right inside my own little community of Lancaster County. I picked up the newspaper while waiting for my coffee to brew and saw a headline announcing the closure of a fire company due to a sexual scandal that had been hidden and not dealt with. Appalled, I stopped and read the article. This issue is right in my home town and right in front of me. This isn’t only a Hollywood or film industry issue. It is a live current issue happening in my own community.

How did we get here?

Even with all this happening in my community, I still long to naively believe this hasn’t impacted the church. The church is a safe and secure place to comfort and care for those who have been abused by the systems or are victims of an unfortunate circumstance. But, even in the church, reports of sexual abuse and immorality inevitably surface. Christian organizations and Christian leaders are not immune to this crisis in leadership.

The questions start to pile up for me and I have more questions than answers. What is leadership? Why are leaders so vulnerable to abuse of power? What is power? Where is accountability? How can I be involved in fighting this epidemic of sexual abuse? Why hasn’t this come up before? Where do we go from here? And, the questions go on and on in my mind.

With all these questions swirling around in my head, it is hard to find a solid answer to anything. I am becoming less convinced there is a solid answer to any of these questions and more convinced there is a solution to this crisis. Is it possible that we can provide a solution to the crisis without providing answers to the questions?

While I wrestle with the idea of a solution to the crisis, I find myself entertaining the questions around the topic of power. What is power and how do people attain it? Before a person can use power to abuse someone else, they must exert some power over another person. The Merriam Webster definition of power says it is “possession of control, authority, or influence over others”. This definition sounds very similar to my own concept of leadership. Do leadership and power go hand in hand? Is it possible to have one without the other?

Leadership is really an ability to influence a group of people and move them in a direction. As a Christian, I believe leadership is an essential part of living a life that honors and glorifies God. Leadership is a platform on which anyone can stand and influence people in a positive or a negative way.

It is fascinating to me that studies of people who advance into leadership positions do so by being very relational and engaged with the people. Yet, when they finally obtain the coveted position of leadership they are most likely to do the exact opposite. They listen less attentively and force their opinion more (Keltner). The very tools that effectively guided them to influence and leadership are the first things that get thrown out. What changes a person so quickly? I believe it is warped concept of power.

The warped concept of power has been around since the time Jesus walked on the earth. Under the Roman rule, the Jewish people longed for a leader who would revolt and overthrow the Roman authorities, setting them free to live without the abusive rule. The disciples who walked with Jesus also were bought into the belief system that being powerful was the mark of a great leader. In simple words, Jesus turns that belief system upside down when he said “the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt 23:11–12). From Jesus perspective, leadership wasn’t about power it was about serving.

Is it possible we do not understand the true meaning of leadership?

At the core of every human is a deep need for significance. With the brokenness I see in our current leadership, I can’t help but notice the deep need for people to be noticed and significant in the world. A burning desire for significance can twist the truth and come out distorted in so many ways. Perhaps, like the disciples asked of Jesus, we also long to be the greatest. In the craze of seeking greatness, we have missed the heart of leadership.

Leadership at its core is about serving others and believing they are more significant than me. Paul spoke of this concept in Phil 2:3, “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves”. If leadership would look like this in our churches, would there be any room left for abuse of power?

Leadership in our society looks very different than the words of Christ. The higher an individual climbs the corporate ladder, the higher his or her salary becomes. A janitor is not paid the same wages as an Executive Assistant. Leaders have more authority to make decisions and often overlook the needs of people in their own organizations. The power leaders are given today often comes unchecked and little or no accountability is given to those in high power positions.

A study was done on the current systems in American society that give space for uncontrolled power. In this study researchers discovered that people who are in a more powerful group have two evident weaknesses: “they develop empathy deficits and are less able to read others’ emotions and take others’ perspectives” (Keltner). This research is beginning to answer the question of how we came to this place in society. If power is part of leadership, then our leaders are less empathetic and less likely to listen and hear the voice of the people.

Where do we go from here?

Having realized the crucial misunderstandings about leadership, we need to address the issue of leadership in our society today. If positive change is going to come to society, it needs to start in the church. We who have the words of Jesus are the people who can influence and lead by serving others well. We are called to serve and sacrificially give to people around us.

I believe it is time the church starts modeling servant leadership. If I am going to model servant leadership, I have the opportunity to serve people daily. This means I need to look at other people as more important than myself. This concept came alive to me a few weeks ago as I sat at Live2Lead and listened to one of the speakers talk about serving people on the team around you. This idea of serving leadership isn’t a theory that is hard to play out in real life. It is as simple as showing up on time for a meeting because other people are more important to me than the coffee I usually get at Starbucks.

Servant leadership is not a hard to grasp concept. It does not take a doctorate degree to figure it out. Servant leaders show up every day and care about their people. They show up on days they do not feel like caring and still care. A servant leader will show up for his team and listen to the creative ideas or the deep concerns. This type of serving will always communicate that the people around you are significant and important. No one is overlooked. No one is forgotten. A servant leader will be there for the people and will not look away when someone is broken and hurting.

You may think this servant leadership is a great biblical concept but you still have questions about how this will change society. I do to. But I know one thing, Jesus left an impact on His culture that has not been forgotten for over two thousand years! He showed up and loved people and the world was never again the same.

I encourage you to show up and serve.

Show up and love.


Resources:

Keltner, Dacher. “Sex, Power, and the Systems That Enable Men Like Harvey Weinstein”, Harvard Business Review, 16 Oct. 2017, hbr.org/2017/10/sex-power-and-the-systems-that-enable-men-like-harvey-weinstein.

Keltner, Dacher. “The Power Paradox.” Greater Good, Greater Good Magazine, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/power_paradox.

“Power.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/power.

Ramsey, Dave. Live2Lead.

The Bible. English Standard Version, Crossway, 2008.