leading without power, part 1

i don’t think i’m alone when i admit that i’ve had issues with power, probably for most of my life. and it’s strangely paradoxical that my struggle with power (as in, i want it, too much) has played a huge role in me being put in roles where i had power. that twisted reality is, i think, a reflection of our church culture buying into broader american power values. no need to harp too much on that — we see nasty abuse of power all around us in the church.

my current employment status (as in, self-employed) is the first time in about 20 years or so that i haven’t had employees who report to me. and i’m starting to see these questions of power and leadership in a new light. maybe it took a complete lack of power in order for me to learn something about this.

of course, i’m challenged by jesus. he’s certainly not powerless. dude had/has plenty o’ power. so the question shifts from quantity to quality; or, the question shifts from if one can exercise power to how one exercises power. and, what form that power takes. i’m sure there are a hundred more forms, but here’s a short list of power forms, good, bad and indifferent:

• Coercion
• Manipulation
• Positional authority
• Official dispenser of rewards & punishment
• Paycheck signer
• Ability to control
• Personality
• Ideation
• Encouragement
• Truth telling
• Serving
• Facilitation

jim collins’ notion of ‘level 5 leadership’ (here’s a helpful harvard business review article on level 5 leadership, written by collins), developed first in his book good to great, has been messing with me for years. i’ve blogged about it many times (here’s one), actually, because it haunts me. the level 5 leader (a very, very rare leader, btw) possesses a “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” and, at the end of the day, isn’t that a pretty good description of jesus’ leadership and use of power? it’s also, unfortunately, not the approach to power we see in most churches (or other places of leadership, to be fair).

let me dive in with this proposal: power-based leadership has no place in the church.
(and: power-based leadership is a culturally-waning paradigm in all contexts, because we live in a wiki, prosumer culture.)

sure, we can argue semantics and reframe power in positive ways (like the power of servant leadership). but, for our purposes here, let’s just stick with the more common understood (and exercised) concept of power — the ability and practice of exerting influence over others whether they want it or not. that’s the kind of power i’d like to see (mostly) excised from church leadership. (i concede with a little “mostly” there, because if i were the exec pastor or senior pastor of a church today, i’m sure there would be times when i would ‘exert influence over others when they didn’t want it’ — whether i’d be right or wrong is a separate conversation.)

here’s a paradigmatic shift idea: church leadership needs to move from a paradigm of control to one of facilitation.
in this context: facilitation = identifying and nurturing competencies

if you follow this blog at all, you’ll likely recognize that language. i picked it up in a conversation with dr. ropert epstein, while talking about how his parenting has shifted, in the midst of a broader conversation about infantilization and extended adolescence, and have mentioned it here more than once. but i’ve started to see that shift’s applicability in so many other contexts of my life. and, really, doesn’t it make great sense here?

where this post series is headed: i’ve come up with 9 new metaphors for ‘powerless leadership’. i hope they’ll stir your thinking and nudge you (and me) off balance a bit. i hope we can take them on a road trip together — test ’em out a bit. i’ll unpack one or two per post, and see where it takes us.

25 thoughts on “leading without power, part 1”

  1. You’ve sucked me in, Marko. I’ve always thought of level 5 leadership as something Collins put in his book as a description of himself so as to sell books/consulting. But if you think it’s possible, I’m alongfor the ride.

    As far as this relates to you… There re a few of us here that may have an interesting third person perspective as we will have known you in two different sides of the last few years. (working for you, now with you)

  2. Great thoughts. If our American church culture could just catch on to the idea if powerless leadership, a whole lot less people would be hurt by the church. You’re right that there are rare instances where wielding power as a leader–usually as an executive leader–is appropriate. But the ironic thing is that those instances require exerting power not to protect ourselves, but to protect others.

    Really looking forward to this series.

  3. Mark, I have been helped, challenged, inspired, and discomforted by your thoughts and reflections for some years now. Thank you. I served as an associate for youth after copastoring, and have returned to being a solo pastor. Throughout these changes in position, power and it’s uses and abuses have been central to the opportunities and crises that marked those ministries, and hindered them as well. I am grateful to reconnect and will follow the discussion eagerly. Thanx again!

  4. I can’t wait to see where this thinking goes. As a sucker for a good metaphor I am really intrigued and think that this idea is exactly what we need in the church today. We’ve had too much culture in church (anyone else think we don’t really need to have a church “constitution”?) already.

  5. Can’t wait to see where this topic goes…GREAT stuff! A few questions that come to my mind that may or may not be pertinent to the dialogue:

    – is power a pre-requisite to truly leading? In other words, do you have to have it in order to give it up and lead without it? If so, then is it really leading without power or just leading with masked or subdued power? Or am I getting too deep into the weeds, here?

    Can’t wait to see where you lead this conversation….gently, of course.

  6. Love this, and I’m eager to hear/read you unpack the metaphors.

    Here’s a question about not trying to influence others when they don’t want it (which, btw, sounds very similar to Andy Root’s ideas about shifting from influence to incarnational relationship): where do you think speaking truth into people’s lives (exhortation and admonishment) fits into this?

  7. I definitely agree with you on the need to move from a focus of control to facilitation. I read this book for a class a couple years back: “No Longer Servants, but Friends: A Theology of Ordained Ministry” (http://www.amazon.com/No-Longer-Servants-but-Friends/dp/0687081637). The focus was on those words of Christ but how in contrast we often view people in our churches as commodities to be used. The book challenged my thinking in how I dealt with my volunteers and I’ve definitely seen this in pastors I’ve worked with and it was very hurtful and ultimately toxic to the church as a whole. But so many come into ministry with a competitive mindset to create a certain type of ministry and just step over people in the process. So frustrating. Good words!

  8. so many interesting comments already — but i’ll respond to a few:

    @adam — yes, i think you can be a crap detector for me. :)

    @paul — i suppose there could be some overlap with discipleship, particularly in the application of “moving from control to facilitation” as a mindset shift. but i don’t think they’re the same. maybe they’re only the same in that there’s a ‘leadership role’ in discipleship that needs to experience this power shift.

    @KJ — excellent questions. i think there’s certainly a sense where “leading without power” is, as i mentioned, a semantic game, because–ultimately–there is no leadership without some kind of power (even if it’s simply the power of influence with zero exertion attached). i suppose what i’m really focusing on in this post thread, though, is the idea of how we exercise leadership (and use power) when we’re in church roles that offer the opportunity to lead. those roles inherently offer the opportunity to abuse power (or try to); and our church culture, in most cases, even expects that to some degree.

    @joel — i don’t think this powerless leadership diminishes exhortation and admonishment; but it reframes it. i hope this is what you experience in YMCP, as i think i exhort and admonish you and the rest of the cohort all the time; and that’s part of my leadership in your life and ministry. BUT, i don’t think i’m exercising traditional power in doing so (this isn’t as much to my credit as it is to the structure of our relationship — i only have the power you give me, since i don’t supervise you or have any traditional controls over you).

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