The appropriate use of power is a reality for every leader. Here are some reflections about power I have experienced in my own leadership.
1. I am a steward of power, because leadership always comes with power.
The exercise of power is not the same as the practice of leadership. As author Jim Collins says in Good to Great And the Social Sectors, “If I put a loaded gun to your head, I can get you to do things you might not otherwise do, but I’ve not practiced leadership; I’ve exercised power.” If people follow because they have no choice, then that’s not leading.
2. The power I have can either create or destroy; it is almost never neutral.
Leadership power used wisely has enormous potential to promote individual and common good. God’s creative power brought the universe into being. His redemptive power raised Jesus from the dead. But Adam and Eve’s sin was destructive power. They wanted to be more, know more, and have more. Similarly, we struggle with the feeling that we never have quite enough power. Nothing touches leaders more profoundly – for good or for ill – than power. A colleague once told me that power is like drinking salt water: the more you drink the thirstier you get.
3. The most damaging result of destructive leadership power is ruptured relationships.
Destructive leadership power destroys dialogue. It breaks trust. King Saul’s will to power ruptured his relationship with David. David’s will to power destroyed his integrity and cost his friend Uriah his life.
4. Power can be especially destructive in the service of religion.
The spread of terrorism by religious extremists demonstrate that those who become a law unto themselves, and at the same time take on a mantle of piety, are particularly corruptible and destructive. When leaders are convinced that their voice is the voice of God, they assume inappropriate authority and use it to their own ends. Those leaders who are not accountable are most susceptible to this tragic misuse of power.
Few leaders can be trusted with unchecked power. And I am no exception. We need trusted coworkers and friends who are able and willing to tell us the truth and to hold us accountable.