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Reality Check: Leadership is About Power

September 21, 2011

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!”

However, the authors of a very good article I read in the 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?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2011 7:16 am

    For a while, we had the whole “servant leadership” push, and that seemed to define power. The Japanese team concept worked its way in, flattening many organizations.
    But what I have found is that we really want someone to be in charge — that’s it. Make a decision, give us the resources to do it and then stand by us through its execution.

    From a spiritual perspective, God has no problem with leaders in charge. So why do we bristle so against authority?

  2. September 21, 2011 11:12 am

    I think people confuse the idea of being a servant-leader with the idea of being a servant. It is about serving people, but you do so through leading them. Part of that is desiring influence. (I personally like to think of it as influence rather than power just because they have different connotations.)

    • September 23, 2011 5:19 am

      Yes , power and influence have different connotations – but influence is a very large component of “power.” Maybe the negative connotation with power is when it’s all about control and authority, and the influence then is not genuine.

  3. September 21, 2011 4:53 pm

    Brad a very thought provoking post.

    I would agree with their statement but perhaps not in the way that they would like for me to agree with it.

    My definition of power, which I am assuming is theirs for the sake of this discussion would be the worldy type we know: that of exertion and force, not necessarily always brute in nature but mostly self preserving.

    I think there is a different kind of power, one that is totally unassuming in nature but compelling, attractive and very forceful in a non brutish way. It is this power that elevates leaders from managers and more importantly differentiates those that grow others rather than themselves.

    Growing others is power because in order to do this, the party being grown needs to submit and become pliable to a power outside of itself.

    • September 23, 2011 5:27 am

      I think you nailed it Claire – True power is not self-preserving, but about developing others. That is a shift that not everyone is able to see or make.

      I think this article was mainly focused on those with career ambitions for moving up the organization, and laying out the realities of what it’s going to take. I was talking with a friend yesterday about this, and I said that although the self-preserving activities completely miss the point of leadership, there is some truth to the need for self-awareness in terms of how you come across to others in the organization – especially sr. mgmt. If you are viewed as someone who invests and develops others, but is a total goofball, that doesn’t help your career much. So the question is what is the appropriate balance between investing in our career path and investing in others? Why can’t we do both?

  4. September 21, 2011 5:32 pm

    mainly, a leader needs to be present to be a connection between the power and the people that the leader is responsible for.

  5. September 21, 2011 8:45 pm

    “Aside from intellect, technical abilities, and cultural savvy, a leader must have a burning desire to get from here to there.”

    I couldn’t agree more. There are lots of smart, savvy, and able folks out there. But there are few leaders. It’s the drive (maybe the drive for power?) that makes leaders rise to the top. I know, this sounds quite worldly. Where does God fit into all this? Doesn’t he ultimately control the universe and all power? Who are we to think it’s about us?

    But this same God has made us. And he has made some of us to be leaders. Is that such a bad thing? When I look at Rick Warren and Michael Hyatt, I think not!

    • September 23, 2011 5:42 am

      I have always wondered why Christians can’t just come out and admit that ambition is part and parcel of the Christian circles as much as in business, or anywhere else. There are people who, as you say, have that inner drive to push, grow, develop, build – and where would we be if we didn’t have people ilke that, to build mega-churches? To preach and teach to the masses? To make good stuff happen? Nothing is easy, and it takes a great deal of persistance to see something through.

      Even something as simple as blogging takes a certain drive and ambition. Otherwise, why would we bother doing anything?

  6. September 22, 2011 7:01 am

    I read this yesterday and have been chewing on it since then. You ask a lot of questions that I don’t think have easy answers. A couple of thoughts–God definitely gifts some for leadership, and those who are gifted are obligated to use their abilities for the kingdom.

    “Having the top post does not mean you will continually be surrounded with recognition and rewards.” Amen to that! I think of men like Joseph, Elijah, and Jeremiah–getting thrown into prison, chased into the desert by lunatic queens, or spending a lifetime delivering a message no one wanted to hear. I think about the elders in my church, how often they are criticized for taking an unpopular stance, yet that’s what they’ve signed on for. Maybe that’s why Paul said not many should aspire to that role. Which leads me to a desire for power–again, I think of biblical examples of those who, when called by God said, “Thank you, no.” Moses, in particular comes to mind.

    So, is it wrong to aspire to power? I think the answer is no. A person needs to play out who he is, exercise his gifts to the best of his ability. At the same time, we shouldn’t be surprised when God chooses the stutterer or the scrawny little son of Jesse to lead his people. Because God doesn’t really need our strengths. Sometimes he displays His power through surprising means.

    Sorry i wrote a blog post in response to your blog post.

  7. September 22, 2011 9:15 am

    This is an unusually candid assessment of what motivates most leaders. There no question that in order to lead, leaders use their power to give or take away things people need and want in order to get things done, whether for the job at hand or for their own advancement. Machiavelli said that it is better to be feared than to be loved. If job number one is the advancement of the leader’s career, this is the beginning and end of the matter.

    A man who is now a senator in Washington state used to be a manager where I work. A coworker who reported to him says his main agenda was terrorizing everybody in his domain, to the extent that he intimidated even the housekeeping staff with his erratic outbursts. Whether this is effective in business management is certainly debatable. Collins in his widely read book, “Good to Great”, talks a lot about what he calls level 5 leadership. This kind of leadership, he says, was in evidence in companies that beat the market in a big way, transforming their mediocre results to outstanding success. This kind of leadership is the opposite of the high profile leadership of guys like Lee Iacocca and Jack Welch. It isn’t about leadership at all but about the day-by-day details of running a business. Level 5 leaders are involved in every aspect of their companies and they listen as much as they talk. They are skilled and knowledgeable in the details of the operations they manage.

    From a Christian perspective, there is something to be said for leadership without power mongering. Jesus was a powerless man caught between oppressive Roman authorities and religious leaders who were advancing their own careers at the expense of their kindred. The Pharisees and Sadducees were despised because they collaborated with power. In order to rule, the Romans needed the cooperation of people with authority in the Jewish community. The religious leaders were frequently available and complicit. Jesus was crucified in a conspiracy between the religious powers and Roman powers. His disputes with the religious leaders exposed the hypocrisy of men who claimed to lead while mainly advancing their own interests.

    Jesus changed history with the astonishing authority he gained by caring about powerless people. How many of the people he healed were the helpless, the infirm, the poor! His closest associates followed him without compulsion or tangible rewards. Few of the people who thronged about Jesus had any power. The Christian religion outlasted and overcame the Roman Empire because ordinary powerless people followed Jesus in service to basic human needs. Similar actions have persisted over centuries. In our time servant leadership in Poland and China have changed the world. Wealthy and influential American church leadership has not been as effective as servant leaders in the southern hemisphere, where Christianity is growing exponentially while power mongering church leaders in the north are embroiled in useless disputes about sex and their organizations are losing ground financially.

    If you want to have a career, use power. If you want to make a difference, follow the examples of Jesus or Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Find the strength to love in the face of oppression by careerists advancing their own interests.

  8. September 22, 2011 9:38 pm

    Marcus just Tweeted this little gem: 1 in 25 Business Leaders May Be Psychopaths

    The survey suggests psychopaths are actually poor managerial performers but are adept at climbing the corporate ladder because they can cover up their weaknesses by subtly charming superiors and subordinates. This makes it almost impossible to distinguish between a genuinely talented team leader and a psychopath, Babiak said.

  9. September 23, 2011 8:51 am

    Ambition. Power. Influence. Money. Sounds like the plot of a corrupt film about Wall Street, doesn’t it? So many Christians have been led to believe that these things are ungodly. It is this very deception that is hindering the church in the marketplace.

    All things can be worked for good or evil. There is nothing wrong with ambition, power, influence, and money. In fact I strongly believe that ambition and influence especially are gifts from God while influence and money tend to come hand in hand with them. We have a choice to turn these gifts into praise for Christ or to use them for our own selfish gain. What are you going to do?

    One of my favorite quotes: Those that have failed are already humbled by their circumstance. Go on, succeed, and humble yourself by turning it over to the Lord.

    Outstanding discussion Bradley (and commenters), thank you.

  10. September 27, 2011 4:23 pm

    This post made me pause… I’m really excited about Servant Leadership, but those servants have to have the vision and gumption.
    Jesus had power. He did whatever He saw the Father doing, and had amazing influence. He would just walk up to a guy, say “Follow me”, and that guy would drop everything. That’s incredible, awe-inspiring power.

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