leadership 4: i have the power

First…a regression to my childhood. This:

This week, week four of contemplating leadership, the crux of our discussion was around the theme of power.

There are a bunch of questions around the interplay between power and leadership:

  • is power inherently negative? is it entirely about the capacity to deprive another?
  • can there be leadership without power?
  • is fear of power a fear of leadership itself?
  • is power the same as capacity to influence?
  • is influence a value-neutral replacement term for power?

It seems that so much of the exercise of leadership is about an interplay built around power.

Sometimes (Machiavelli style) it’s about wielding power as a weapon to instill fear.  Sometimes (as we in the church like to proudly proclaim) it’s about empowering the powerless.

Sometimes power and its impact is obvious, known by both sides of an exchange. But sometimes it’s hidden, not acknowledged or realised by one party or the other.

A few years ago I was a new arrival in a leadership role in a challenging context. There had been conflict in the organisation before I arrived, and the situation was anything but clear. I figured that as a newcomer, I could perhaps dance along the fence separating the parties maybe doing some good, maybe contributing to a restoration of relationship.

I met with the wounded party, who from their perspective had been dealt with unjustly and harshly over a long period of time.  I tried to dance that dance, to steer clear of involvement in the conflict and look to a new relationship.  Nothing worked.

Over a long period of time, and several tense conversations, my colleague helped me realise the power imbalance at play in my attempt. No matter that I was new on the scene, I wore the badge of office, I was the face of the same establishment that had committed this perceived injustice, I was powerful, even if I didn’t know it, or feel it (or want it). That was a good lesson to learn.  It was a reminder too, that there is sometimes power that is positional, or institutional, other times personal (maybe even charistmatic). What other kinds of power can you identify?

The conversation in class this week got me wondering whether leadership can be understood as a kind of power-exchange.

In good, effective, just leadership, the exchange of power might mean the leader giving up some of their own power, in order to empower the follower.

Or maybe even a win-win situation is possible, in which the wise and gentle use of the leader’s power (after all, what is gentleness if not perfectly controlled strength?) not only builds the power of the follower, but maintains or even strengthens the power of the leader?

And I think we can all remember situations in which an abuse of power by the leader slams the follower, puts them in a position of utter powerlessness.

There is an exchange of power that goes on in the living out of leader/follower relationships.

Our other contemplation this week started with the oft-quoted phrase:

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (Lord Acton)

Lord Acton borrowed the idea from earlier authors – but it’s his wording that has stood the test of time. What is less commonly quoted is the phrase that follows in his letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton (from which the quote is drawn). Acton went on to say:

Great men are almost always bad men.

That is quite a declaration.  “Great men are almost always bad men”, and if it’s the power that corrupts, then I guess the question is whether they are bad at first, or become bad  through their experience of exercising (or exchanging or receiving) power).

Maybe it’s a little too naive, but I truly hope this isn’t a genuine reflection on the human spirit and condition.

I wonder if maybe power amplifies the underlying characteristic.

If I’m nasty, rude or arrogant, then power has the potential to amplify that nastyness, rudeness or arrogance.

On the other hand, if I’m compassionate, thoughtful and creative….maybe power can amplify those positives?

Perhaps where this theory runs into difficulty is in thinking about the kind of person who is more likely to seek after power, to gather power together, who aims to grow their own power even if at the expense of another.  If that same power then amplifies that hunger…well, I guess you can see where that notion ends up.

I’m a long way from sorting thoughts on power and leadership into anything like a coherent understanding (as you can tell!), but there’s no question in my mind that the exercise and exchange of power (whether in a positive or negative sense) is one of the critical ingredients in understanding and exercising leadership.

NB: This is the fourth in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College


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