the shape of leadership

Power Failure

Don’t let your position become your downfall

John Davidson on November 15, 2019


You might think people who come to positions of power get there because they are the strongest, best at what they do, most charismatic and most determined to climb to the top of the heap. If you thought that, you’d be wrong.

When my first child was born, I was in awe of how helpless she was. She couldn’t make any decisions. Totally powerless. Until the first time she cried all night, keeping me from sleep. It was then I realized she wasn’t powerless. In fact, this helpless baby had considerable influence over my life.

The truth is every human has some measure of power. According to Dacher Keltner in his book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, power defines the waking life of every person. You have a certain amount of natural power to influence your own life and the lives of those around you.

As a minister, you have an added element of power over those you lead in your home, church and community. When channeled in ways that serve others and represent God’s kingdom well, our power is constructive and helpful, even God-honoring.

But like everything in our lives, our use of power has been corrupted by the Fall. Which means, no matter how pure I think my motives are, there will always be a temptation for me to use power (even spiritual power) in destructive and sinful ways. The abuse of power in Christian ministries is more visible than ever before, though the abuses themselves aren’t necessarily new or more common than in the past.

The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have highlighted sexual harassment and sexual abuse, which are a misuse of power. Racism is abuse of power. Manipulation of people for any reason is abuse of power. Mistreatment of a spouse, a child or a staff member is an abuse of power. Using your God-given spiritual leadership for self-promotion, wealth building and selfish ambition are all abuses of power.

Interestingly, research has a lot to tell us about how people come to power. Keltner’s studies show those who rise to power consistently have five characteristics he refers to as the Big Five: kindness, enthusiasm, focus, calmness, and openness.

Using your God-given spiritual leadership for self-promotion, wealth building and selfish ambition are all abuses of power.

These five capture the ways an individual exhibits empathy and shows concern for the well-being of others. Statistically, those are the traits that get people promoted to positions of power.

Unfortunately, the same research shows those traits are the first to disappear when someone gains power.

The more power I have, the more I start to focus on myself. And because focus is a limited resource, increased focus on me means I focus less on you.

For an example, we need look no further than the life of King David, one of the most powerful men in Scripture. At the height of his power, David’s life took a tragic turn when he took advantage of Bathsheba, had Bathsheba’s husband killed, and experienced the loss of an infant son. When the prophet Nathan confronted David about his sin in 2 Samuel 12, he used a story about a man who abused his power.

Scripture and history have taught us that God allows individuals to come to power, He can give more power or take power away, and He will hold us accountable for what we do with power. God will not allow abuses of power to go unpunished, no matter the offender’s position, influence or level of power.

So how do we keep our power in check? How do we use our power for good, not bad?

To lead well, without falling prey to the temptation to use power for your own benefit, keep these five practices central to your life and leadership:

  • Recognize your feelings of power. When you feel powerful, submit it to God and commit to using it for the benefit of others. Fight the desire to use power only for yourself.
  • Practice humility. Invite feedback and critique. Be open to correction. Realize you don’t have all the answers. Don’t be overly impressed with yourself.
  • Focus on others, and give power away. Develop leaders around you by investing in them. Give them a chance to lead. Take every opportunity to praise them and give them credit.
  • Practice respect. Honor others, whether you think they deserve it or not. Engage them in discussion. Ask them questions. Value their input.
  • Make yourself accountable. Have at least one friend or mentor in your life who is not impressed with you and who will help you see how you may be misusing or abusing power.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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