One famous line from the movie Braveheart comes from a confrontation between William Wallace and the nobles of Scotland (wealthy landowners who exploited commoners). Wallace said, “There’s a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom. And I go to make sure they have it.”
With position and title almost always comes power. Power is the ability to direct or influence the behavior of others. Authority, similar to power, is the perceived right to exercise power. Here’s an example: A man of physical strength has the power (the ability) to restrain someone. A police officer, on the other hand, has the authority (the assigned right) to restrain someone.
But there is another component of power that’s vital for leaders to understand. While one with power and authority may be able and authorized to influence another, he or she may lack the credibility to do so—meaning that he or she lacks moral permission from people to exercise influence over them. In the truest sense, power without credibility is illegitimate power.
For example, I am the father of three. My initial leadership to my children is based upon the title and the authority vested in my role as father. In this sense, I might be able to get them to conform to my expectations simply because I hold an authoritative position over them. But if my children only do what I tell them to do because I hold the title of father, then I have failed as a parent. That kind of leadership will only last until they leave our home. While I may have held the title of “leader” over them, I will not have fulfilled the wonderful blessing and rich potential of that role. If I seek lasting impact, I must use my power and authority for them, not simply for myself. I must also influence my children through character and example. I must live before them, with passion, the values I hold dear in the hopes that they will embrace them as well. I must not just teach them and tell them what to do, but serve and sacrifice for my children in order to earn real credibility. I must provide a vision for them of the kind of life I desire them to live, as well as empower them with the resources to live it. This is the virtuous and magnanimous nature of true leadership.
Therefore, when people who possess the right to lead through title also earn the right to lead through trust, then truly effective, moral and legitimate leadership is expressed.
Why is this discussion of a leader’s power so important? Because power is the greatest asset of leadership. It provides leaders with the potential to do good or bring harm. Power allows leaders to build trust and thus gain the voluntary and legitimate permission of people to influence them, or power can be used in such a way that it undermines trust and legitimacy. “Nothing is more useful than power, nothing more frightful.”* Since this is true, the way a leader uses power is the truest test of his or her character.
The Stewardship of Power
One of the most healthy ways a leader can view themselves, as well as their power and position, is as a steward. A steward is defined as “a person charged with the responsibility of managing another person’s assets that have been entrusted to his or her care.”
Do you know leaders who are always reminding others of their title and their power? Who cling to it obsessively? Who feel it gives them the privilege to do what they want?
Steward leaders view power differently. They don’t define themselves by it. They don’t spend power primarily on themselves, and they don’t believe it’s theirs by right or by their own doing. Rather, power (legitimate power) comes to them on loan from the very people they lead. That’s right, power is a blessing given to leaders by followers. It is bestowed to a leader, not theirs by right or entitlement. Therefore, it is to be held as a sacred trust with humility, fully aware of its corrupting potential.
Here are some characteristics of steward leaders who manage the asset of leadership well:
They view their leadership, and the power that accompanies it, as a sacred trust from others. They are not owners of it, but stewards of it.
They resist the temptation to spend power on themselves.
They seek to exercise their power with credibility, i.e. to also gain the trust and moral permission of followers to influence them.
They do not believe followers belong to them, nor do they see positions as inherently theirs by right or entitlement, or solely define themselves by it.
They influence without having to remind people of their title and authority.
Ability, authority and credibility— three facets of power by which leaders may influence. Which will you seek to exercise most?
*Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Sabbath. Farrar, Strous and Giroux, New York. 1951. p. 3.