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Reality-Check: Leadership Is All About Power

December 4, 2009

It might upset some good Christian business leaders to think too much about power. “But we are servant-leaders!” they will say. “True leadership is about humility, not amassing power!” But the authors of a very good article I read in Monday’s Wall Street Journal pose a spiritually-incorrect possibility:

 “Whatever else a leader must do, a leader must gain, exercise and retain power.”

Why? Well, in order to become a leader in the first place, of course. Which will inevitably involve facing some unpleasant details such as dealing with difficult, strong-willed people who have their own appetite for power, or making life-or-death decisions in the face of extreme challenges. On the flip side, it takes a level of power to achieve some positive things too, like influencing and initiating new ideas, or charting a vision of the future and compelling others to follow.

Ultimately, the authors of this article believe that an aspiration for power is what is required to drive a leader to make the sacrifices, invest the time, and to develop the skills required to get to the top.

Preston C. Bottger and Jean-Loius Barsoux, both professors at the famous IMD International school of business management, go on to list three questions that executives must ask as a reality-check on assessing their own leadership potential.

1. How far do you want to go?

It is critical to understand the realities of the time, energy and level of responsiblity that come with the territory of high-caliber jobs. You will constantly be making decisions that affect other peoples’ lives and money. Take a good look at what the senior leaders are doing in your own organization. Are you willing to do those same things that are required for their jobs?

2. What are you willing to invest?

If you want to lead, you must make tough choices about how much effort you want to put in to your own growth. Aside from intellect, technical abilities, and cultural savvy, a leader must have a burning desire to get from here to there – a desire for power, according to the authors – which will never be an easy road. It will take discipline, drive, and sacrifice in order to perservere through the daunting course required to get there.

3. How will you keep it up?

Having the top post does not mean you will continually be surrounded with recognition and rewards. You will have to deal more often with criticism, resistance, setbacks, and people who simply don’t like what you are asking them to do. You will need to find some ways to balance your physical, emotional, and spiritual (I said that, not them) aspects of your life in order to keep fresh, energetic and relevant.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with these authors? Or are they missing the boat because of a lack of spiritual guidance in their thinking? Before you answer, think about some of the most “powerful” spiritually-grounded  business or church leaders that you can think of: Rick Warren, say, or Michael Hyatt. Could any of them have achieved their postitions without some level of desire for power or influence?

By the way, Websters definition of power is: “Possession of control, authority, or influence over others.”

From a spiritual perspective, is “power” a good thing or a bad thing?

Can you have influence in this world without power?

How would you define power in leadership, from a spiritual perspective?

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2009 2:16 pm

    Oh heck, Bradley, it’s snowing on your blog. Do you work for someplace in Texas? ; – )

    Yes, I believe leadership requires use of power. It’s all in how we use it.

  2. December 4, 2009 6:11 pm

    I’ve seen this too up close. Christian and non-Christian. It always seems to end the same.

    I’ve reread this three times. I can’t explain how much personal pain it causes.

  3. December 4, 2009 11:24 pm

    John Maxwell said it best: “Leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.”

    So a leader does need power (or influence). But how to go about getting that power is the thing we need to be careful of. Jesus said, “Watch how those guys do it, they lord it over other people. But this won’t be the way for you. To be the greatest of all you must be servant of all.”

    So leaders should seek for greater influence…but by the way of service.

    Greatest is the best road.

  4. December 5, 2009 5:57 am

    The word power and Webster’s definition often comes with this tone of “You must do what I say” kind of hierarchical power. I’ve seen this-kind-of-power-managers kill all creativity, initiative and pleasure of “lower” workers (including me).

    I like to distinguish leadership from management, where (too) simply put: leadership = changing/challenging the status quo and management = maintaining the status quo. Power in management sense is the ability to let everyone work on maintaining the status quo. Power in leadership sense is the ability to describe your dream, communicate your vision and align people to get the same dream and work with you to establish your vision.

    In my opinion Jesus was more a leader than a manager. I really like the power He used to feed 5000 people (quite impossible for a manager), by saying to his “workers”: “do you feed them!”. Or the dream/vision He preached and practiced: the Kingdom of God.

    In short: yes, power is good and we need it in leadership. But not in a master – slave way.

  5. December 5, 2009 2:11 pm

    So Glynn, sounds like a sore subject for you. Sorry about that (my therapist can call your therapist to discuss further).

    LL – I turned off the snow, because it looked to me more annoying and distracating than festive… I agree with you, power is all about HOW we use it. I honestly don’t think leadership can happen without some level of power.

    I really like the insight from Michael and Leon – “Seek influence by way of serving.” is a unique way to look at power (thanks Michael). And Leon, good distinction about the master-slave thing. And you have such a good summary of leadership (changing status quo) vs Management (maintaining status quo). Although, these days, I don’t know any manager who is going to get by with simply maintaining status quo. Every manager needs to be constantly trying to improve, raising the bar. At least that is my experience.

  6. December 5, 2009 3:34 pm

    Another way of explaining the difference between leadership and management:
    – management is meant to do current activities more efficient (cost reduction, profit maximization, improving, raising the bar etc.)
    – leadership is the art of casting a vision and enlarging the effect of the company by creating new products and activities (change the world etc.)

    So, yes I too experience that every manager needs to be constantly trying to improve, but I think we need a lot more leadership than management these days:

    Management is about efficiency, leadership is about effectiveness.

  7. December 5, 2009 4:50 pm

    there is power…and then there is…power.

    what i mean here is that there is the power that is of God, and there are other types of power that are not all mighty and wonderful.

    it is all a matter of choice.
    if a person is a believer then, as a leader, they must remember their responsibility to God in how they lead people.

    any type of leadership of others is a serious business, i must add, especially in leading young children.

    we can blur the line between leading and misleading and go over that line without realizing it.

    • December 7, 2009 6:02 am

      Yes, Nancy, it is the sense of responsibility for our power that seperates the ego-driven (bad) from the God-driven (good) leadership. Keeping a clear spiritual line will help avoid going over that line.

  8. December 5, 2009 7:41 pm

    Leadership is the art of mobilizing others toward shared aspirations. Leaders are supposed to take care of all stakeholders: owners, managers, other employees including women, customers, suppliers, the community, the govt., etc. i.e. all those upon whom the organization depends for its survival and success. Leaders must operate in an ethical manner, instead of merely preaching about the importance of ethics, and then going on to make false promises, unreasonable demands and discriminating unfairly against women and others. This approach will result in profitable growth combined with an increase in the welfare of all parties involved.

    Great leaders are visionaries whose intuition helps them to recognize and capitalize on business opportunities in a timely manner. Their success is based on surrounding themselves with “like-minded” professionals who complement them to help reinforce their strengths and eliminate their weaknesses. They build teams consisting of individuals who complement one another in a way that ensures consistent performance in line with corporate goals. This is in direct contrast to mediocre leaders who surround themselves with yes-people who, by their very nature, are unable to contribute positively to the bottom line!

    The wisdom of effective leaders enables them to appreciate the views of their inner circle and others. In situations where consensus cannot be reached, they have an uncanny ability to cut to the chase and make informed decisions. They foster an environment that encourages the sharing of ideas through brainstorming while realizing that innovation need not be preceded by the existence of committees.

    True leaders place a great deal of emphasis on culture and shared values. They realize that business involves human beings and that profitable growth results from fruitful relationships. They normally possess both formal and informal power. Formal power is entrusted to them by virtue of their position in the company. Informal power results from their core belief system. They lead by example, thus earning the respect and admiration of their peers and subordinates. As a result, employees are enthusiastic about going beyond the call of duty for “their” leaders.

    Great leaders build organizations that are vibrant and performance driven. They structure employee compensation packages in a way that promotes and reinforces the right behaviors and rewards people on the basis of individual as well as team performance. They believe that a base salary pays the bills, whereas variable compensation, including earnings before interest, taxes, dividends and amortization (EBITDA)-based bonuses, motivates employees to challenge themselves and increase their contribution to the firm on a consistent basis. These leaders find reasons to pay bonuses as opposed to those leaders who find reasons to deprive employees of bonuses they truly deserve!

    I have a policy of distributing free copies of my books on leadership, ethics, teamwork, motivation, women, sexual harassment, bullying, etc., to anyone who sends a request to

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

    • December 7, 2009 6:06 am

      Max- Wow! This was like getting a mini-book right here on my blog! Thanks for the insights. I especially like one thing you say here that I have never heard before – that of “Informal” power, which comes from one’s core belief system. That fits right in with my view of “Spirituality in Leadership” which says that leadership without some form of spiritual backing will get somehow twisted.

      Thanks for your insights and the information on your resources.

  9. donkimrey permalink
    December 5, 2009 9:41 pm

    Brad, you always make me think. I’m wondering if, at least in the article you referenced, “leadership” is equated with “power.” I don’t believe they’re synonymns. Have you considered dictionary definitions of each? Obviously “power” is essential in any position of leadership or true service. A good point of reference for “power ” exercised by a Christian is in the first chapter of the Biblical book of Acts. The word translated “power” there is the Greek word “dunamis” (from which we get our word “dynamite.”). However, in the N.T. context it certainly does not mean seflish, overwhelming influence. It does not refer to sudden, destructive, disruptive, self-seeking or self-serving objectives. “Power” is necessary to lead or influence anyone in any direction. What seems to me to be crucial is the source of the “power,” the manner in which it is used, and the purposes or goals for which it is applied. Your motives ought also be viewed closely when you wield influence. ~donkimrey

  10. December 7, 2009 6:12 am

    Don – Yes, to him much has been given, much will be expected (sorrry, not the exact biblical quote!). I think we are agreeing that power is necessary to lead, but like anything else, can be used either towards positive, productive goals or negative or destructive ends. So it all goes back to the person’s motives or, I would say, spiritual source for the power.

    Great thoughts!

  11. December 7, 2009 10:42 pm

    This life is absolutely about power. And I want as much as I can get. In fact, I’m ruthlessly pursuing the power of God, entrusted to me because I surrender to His will.

    “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.
    (John 14:12 NKJV)

    “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”
    (Luke 12:48 NKJV)

    I’m not there. But I plan to stay the course, at any cost.

    • December 8, 2009 8:42 am

      How negligent of me to omit why I crave that power.

      I serve an awesome God. My highest privilege, greatest pleasure, and deepest passion are to glorify Him.

      I wish to do it with all the power He’ll allow me.

    • December 9, 2009 6:17 pm

      Anne – You are certainly ambitious for God, and that is a great thing. No apologies from you, because you know it is power to be used for GOOD. You have brought up the biggest conundrum of all: Ruthlessly pursuing the power of GOD by surrendering to His will. That is a paradoxical truth if I ever heard one. Me too, still trying to figure it out!

  12. December 8, 2009 10:43 pm

    Of course there are lots of different “types” of power. You can have power because you’re the boss, or you can have power because you know the most about something, or you can have power because you’re well liked.

    Each of these, I think, changes the “tone” of the conversation. When we say “do this because I’m the boss” it’s entirely different than saying “Well I built this submarine, and I can tell you that opening that door is a bad idea.” In both cases power is exerted, but the reaction to it is very different.

    If you crave power for powers sake, I think that it probably always ends badly. But if you use power as a servant (i.e., with someone else’s good in mind) then power can do amazing things.

    • December 9, 2009 6:15 pm

      E. Barrett – What a great point of distinction! Do you know anyone who craves power for power’s sake? Probably, we all do. Especially in business. And they’s the ones that give this power thing a bad rap.

      I love how you said it: “If you use power as a servant then power can do amazing things” What a way to channel the spirit! Please come back and comment more often, man!!


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