The Paradox of Power

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Eugene was a big man who towered over me. He put one hand on my left shoulder, one on my right, looked me straight in the eye and said in a resonant voice that was heard throughout the room, “In my country, when they make you a king, they make you a slave.”

I had just been installed as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Fairfield, Connecticut, and was at the reception following the service. In that congregation there was a wonderful extended family from Ghana in West Africa. Eugene was “head” of the family. He was a former officer in the Ghanaian army, and still stood straight and had a commanding presence.

His words echoed in my ears and went straight to my heart, “In my country, when they make you a king, they make you a slave.” Eugene continued his loving exhortation by saying that people need a leader who protects, provides and cares for them. “The good leader knows,” he said, “that the welfare of the people means his own security and well-being, too.”

I imagine you may find it a bit jarring to compare a pastor to a king, or hear an African speak openly about slavery. But Eugene’s point is clearly consistent with Jesus’ message. In John 13, just hours before his betrayal, trial and crucifixion, Jesus showed his disciples the way of power in God’s Kingdom.

After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them” (John 13:12-17 New Living Translation).

Leaders need to understand the nature of power. Power is framed differently in God’s Kingdom as opposed to the world. In the world, power is a sign of prestige; in God’s Kingdom, power is vested in servants. In the world, power is a tool for self-gratification; in God’s Kingdom, power is a means to show love. In the world, power is often exercised through personal intimidation; in God’s Kingdom, power is dying to self.

A number of years ago, I developed the book TouchPoints for Leaders as part of the Tyndale House Publishers TouchPoints  series. It contains over 150 topics with Scriptures and comments I wrote applicable to leadership issues. Don’t let that word ‘leader’ throw you if you think, “I’m not a leader.” Leaders are, most simply, people with influence. This influence can be formal (like a teacher or a coach) or, more likely, informal (as in the influence you have with friends, colleagues, and family members). Here’s what I wrote as one of the entries under “Power:”

Leaders have the ability to influence others, to mobilize resources, and to get the attention of significant people or groups of people in society. They can make things happen– or keep things from happening. In short, they have power to control. This is the most seductive aspect of leadership– but is also at the heart of effectiveness. Ultimately, however, leaders in all walks of life are dependent on God’s power.

Many passages in Scripture remind us that us we are stewards, not originators, of power.

“…’It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6 NLT).

“…He [the Lord] did it so you would never think that it was your own strength and energy that made you wealthy. Always remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you power to become rich” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18 NLT).

“…For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 NLT).

“And who is adequate for such a task as this? . . . It is not that we think we can do anything of lasting value by ourselves. Our only power and success come from God” (2 Corinthians 2:16, 3:5 NLT).

“There are no ‘self-made’ people who have power in and of themselves. They cannot claim responsibility for their birth, their genetic makeup, nor the political, economic and social circumstances and times into which they were born. God allows us to live at the time and place of his choosing. Wise leaders continually remember where their power comes from so that they use it in accordance with God’s values and will.” (TouchPoints for Leaders, Wheaton, IL, Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, page 181).

The more you use power for self-advancement, the less you really have. Power used in selfless ways grows giving glory to God and blessing to others.

 

 

 

 

 

Authority is the Force of Presence

Authority is much more about our person than our position.

 

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Photo by Benjamin Child at Unsplash.com

Those not in official or formal leadership positions tend to think that the power is in the position. That’s true only to a limited extent. It is true in the sense that a person “in power” can exercise certain rights and authority and claim the perquisites (“perks”) of privileges and benefits that come with that position. But there’s another dimension of leadership that is more significant to the health and well-being of the organization and the individuals leading it: integrity. I mean integrity in the fullest sense of the term: being integrated (inwardly unified) in values and behavior. Living a life congruent and consistent with your vision and calling.  That’s why I say authority is the force of presence not the presence of force.

I’ve noticed that a person’s credentials (their resume of degrees, positions and accomplishments) have a shelf-life of, perhaps, 60 seconds. I’ve been privileged to meet many people in leadership positions in government, in community life and in Christian ministry. They held what I thought were enviable positions of influence. Before meeting each one, I had formed an impression of them by reputation and exposure through books or other media and contacts. After my personal encounter with them, however, I had a strong sense of the difference between those who had true authority and those who just knew how to “work the system.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in just working the system. I want to be “the real deal” (with all my flaws and shortcomings) so that people value me and appreciate me for me.

In my book SoulShaping (Tyndale House Publishers) I wrote, “Our authority grows out of our integrity. Without integrity, we are never more than placeholders; with integrity, we can be life-shapers” (page 358). What I’m really talking about is character. It’s about the old-fashioned concept of virtue. And it’s about the credibility of having faced the real trials and tests of leadership in particular contexts. For instance, in sales, there is a credibility that comes only from years of perseverance in the face of rejection as well as with the demonstration of having made some “big deals.” Both are necessary for a leader. People are more ready to follow a person who demonstrates both genuine empathy for the difficulties we face as well as the vision, competencies and determination to triumph over them. That’s how leaders win hearts and minds.

We can force compliance—but that’s not our goal as leaders. We want to win commitment. Honest heartfelt commitment, not just grudging compliance, is our aim. And that means connecting at the level of personhood, not operating out of position.

Jesus was, indeed, the ultimate demonstration of the authority of presence. He shows us that God is not detached from the human situation. In Christ, God plunged into the human circumstance in a way that gives a credibility that is beyond question. The Book of Hebrews in the Bible says this so clearly:

14 Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death… 17 Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. 18 Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. Hebrews 2:14-18 (New Living Translation)

What’s the basis for your authority? Instead of relying on outward position and achievement, consider the development of “presence,” of your inner person. And think about those in which you see this reality.