leading without power

when youth specialties asks speakers to do a seminar at the national youth workers conventions, they ask for a handful of possible seminar titles. then tic long chooses the ones that fit the overall mix. i’ve been through this process for 20 years or so, including all the years i worked at ys. so it was nothing new to me: i suggest a half dozen or more ideas, some of which are fully developed, and some of which aren’t much more than a title. and, when tic picks one of those that’s only a title… well, there’s work to be done!

this year at the ys conventions, i’m doing four seminars (3 in each of the 2 cities). and two of the seminars i’ll be leading were those “only have a title” kind: soul care for busy non-contemplatives (which is a “fishbowl” discussion), and leading without power. this morning, i had to turn in descriptions for these babies, which meant i had to think a little bit about what they might actually cover!

here’s what i wrote for leading without power:

Leadership guru Max Depree wrote a book with this title, identifying the unique challenges of leadership in a volunteer organization. This is our reality in churches, in youth ministry. We don’t lead with the power of a paycheck, or the power to hire or fire. Instead, we live in the unique space of leading through invitation rather than leading through demands. We’ll contrast this with power-based leadership a bit, then get into a bunch of ideas for leading laterally (and sometimes, leading up).

depree’s book, leading without power, was one i read more than a dozen years ago. and i haven’t read it again since (though i’ve often ruminated on writing a book based on one of the chapters: organizational hope). and, while i couldn’t actually tell you much about the content, other than that one chapter (i’ll need to re-read the book in prep for the seminar!), the title alone has haunted and challenged me for years.

so much of what we read, hear, and absorb about leadership has an embedded power dynamic in it. and i see this all over the church today. it’s certainly dripping from most of the lexicon of leadership books written for church leaders. in fact, i think it’s interesting (and frustrating, and sad) that the few books i’ve read that model a very different kind of leadership are not from or about the church (another amazing and weird book with this vibe is let my people go surfing, by patagonia founder yvon chouinard). certainly, a wonderful exception from power-leadership-in-the-church books is nouwen’s classic, in the name of jesus (man, i have to read that one again also!).

but we do not lead with power. sure, you might counter that we have spiritual power. but that’s not the kind of power i’m talking about. we (let’s use youth pastors, for example) don’t possess the power of the paycheck. and we’re leading in a space where we believe (more in theory than in practice, in many churches) in the priesthood of all believers, and in the sons-and-daughters of god reality that means we’re all siblings, on equal power-ground.

after a dozen years of leading with the luxury of paycheck power (hopefully i didn’t wield that like a light saber most days), i’m back in a space where all of my daily involvements — from my volunteer work at my church, to my consulting work with churches and ministries, to my writing work — involve the opportunity to lead, but no platform for power. i suppose the only arena where i could “lead with power” is in my home; but i’ve found it doesn’t fly well there. :) (yes, i used an emoticon in a blog post.) and it’s bringing me back to these questions again.

the san diego cohort of my youth ministry coaching program had an interesting discussion at one of our meetings about leading laterally and leading up (this is where i grabbed that wording for the seminar description). we talked about what it looks like to lead other church staff over whom you have no responsibility or authority; and what it looks like to lead your senior pastor (a position many youth workers are put in). of course, things like demands and “clarified expectations” go right out the window, as they’re useless. instead, questions of vision, communication, suggestion, transparency, example, story, and healthy politics (yes, politics can be healthy) come into play. and, while good leadership should always be embedded in a soup of support and grace, it becomes a non-negotiable when leading without power.

for example, in my consulting work: i can give great ideas and walk away in disgust if the organization chooses not to embrace them. but that’s not leading; that’s banking (at best), or drive-by consulting (at worst). in order to lead in a situation like this, i need to come in with compassion, understanding, and a posture of listening. that’s an interesting tension to live in, when active listening is, ultimately, not what the organization is paying me for. but, i’m learning, it’s the only route to leadership in this context.

what about you? what struggles are you experiencing with shedding power-leading? what struggles are you experiencing with lateral leading and leading up?

11 thoughts on “leading without power”

  1. This is great stuff friend! And it reminded me of something I often encouraged our employees to remember when I owned a consulting firm. There would be a section of new staff orientation where I’d coach the team on the value of making “bold mistakes” We too often foster fear and that paralyzes. And power driven leadership is a prime cause.


    On a practical level, Seth Godin’s book “linchpin” comes to mind. I related a lot of that book to my position as a youth pastor. Seth shares that what is really valuable & indespensable is the “gift” that we bring to the table.

    While the book wouldn’t be a comprehensive guide to leading without power, there may be space for it..

  3. I find that much of the authority I have with students, volunteers, and parents in my church is a gift–God gives me a calling/gifting to lead and shepherd, and the people I shepherd give me authority into their lives, not based on power but on love. Maybe it’s all grace to be a leader of anything. And when I view leadership as grace in my life, that removes any foundation for leading out of power.

  4. Marko,

    There are two kinds of leading without power…the kind you are talking about where you dont hold the power of a paycheck over someone, and the kind where a flat leadership structure is created and the leader tries to have only as much power as anyone else in the group. Do you see those as related?

    Personally, I love the idea of exploring what it means to lead without the power of a paycheck….but tons of red flags go up for me when people talk about a flat leadership structure because what that often seems to mean is that the leader still has more power than others, but its unidentified by the leader – which makes it harder to be aware of the power issues that are actually going on.

    Just curious what you’re thinking

  5. Good thought starter Marko. I’ll take the bait. Dr. Jay Kesler once said to me “The best way to know if you’re a good servant-leader is when people start treating you like one.” This upside down matrix of leadership continues to elude me most days, as I still struggle with shedding “power leading” as you eloquently coined. But sometimes, I’m surprised when my feeble attempts at servant leadership hits the mark, which they have quite a bit lately. For me it’s rooted in I Cor. 13, in the mandate to love others, particularly in barely even noticing when they do it wrong. “Barely” still leaves room for cognitive process, but not for corrective or defensive reaction. A gentle balance. To note a wrong behavior or leadership style on the part of someone I wish to servant/lead is critical, because it allows for observation of their behavioral patterns, which influence my style and tactics.

    More than barely noticing a wrong, the most powerful tool I have found for leading without power is, unsurprisingly, unconditional love. This gives place to patience, self-control, kindness and gentleness, and the like, which in turn displace my old school power-leader tactics simultaneously.

    When all else fails, I fall back on my mantra: R, B, F. Relax, Breathe, Focus. This gives me a time-out and retrains my mind to approach the “leading without power” challenge again and again, hopefully making only new mistakes with every attempt.

    As I said, good food for thought. Thanks for that.

  6. Recently I had a chance to hear Adam Kahane talk about power and love based on his book of the same title. He tells some powerful stories about leading with love vs leading with power and the consequences of an either or approach. The stories are from experiences assisting governments with major cultural problems. Worth a read. After 15 years of working in the church it helped me surface the issues of what happens when we ignore or don’t exercise appropriate power.

  7. Marko,
    great book. I too read it about 12 years ago. This has prodded to pick it up again. I hope your talk goes well.

  8. I am kind of thinking Tic just chooses the one he thinks you haven’t developed yet. His process is a total mystery to me and that’s why I love him! On Friday he hadn’t made any decisions… came back on Monday and the whole thing was pretty much done. Black magic, I tell you. Black magic.

  9. I would have to go with Linchpin by Seth Godin too. It is a manifesto in making yourself indispensable in a company or career, but I think it says a lot to guys who are trying to lead volunteers as well, since most of that happens through permission.

    Just a thought, is there something in there about how marriage works? How men lead (or women) without forcing submission? Or how God leads us without exercising sovereignty? Wow, where did that come from?

  10. My thought is that all true leadership doesn’t require power. To be a tad cliche, I like the line from Braveheart: “Men don’t follow titles; they follow courage.”

    Personally, I want to be more of a leader who is able to guide and influence people, not because of a position, but because they respect me.

  11. Marko, you might also want to check out the book “Real Power” by Janet Hagburg. In short, she makes the case that real power has nothing to do with the typical accoutrement we associate with leadership (prestige, status, symbols, etc.) and instead has to do with the internal issues of reflection, purpose and wisdom.

    If you want, I can send you a paper I was asked to write on the book about five years ago (the paper is about 25 pages) which summarizes the book and provides applications for staff ministry.

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