He immediately jumped to his feet when I asked for a volunteer scribe for the easel in front of the group. The fairly benign task of writing up the group’s ideas quickly turned into the ‘power of the pen’. Instead of taking the individual offerings and writing them on the large notepad, the scribe arbitrarily determined what was worthy and what was not.
It never ceases to amaze that even in the most routine of activities or situations how an individual or a group can turn something into a power differential. And the reality is it happens in all aspects of life. From family, friends and neighbors to civic, business, education and religious leaders.
Recently I was called back to an organization that I had helped with their executive leadership transition. From all appearances when I concluded my work this was a very good fit. Yet six months later the new leader was being described as having flipped from a collaborative relational leader to a tyrannical dictator.
Are these cases of wolves in sheep’s clothing or is there something that happens to us when we obtain some level of power? I think we can acknowledge that all of us have our preferences, perspectives and opinions. However, taking advantage of our position and the power that comes with it, influencing direction to meet our own specific desired outcome over all others – this is the seed of oppression. And I would suggest it is not leadership at all.
From the world stage to small towns these days is an ever increasing manifestation of those who use their power to benefit themselves and thereby oppress others. From Ukraine to North Korea from our nation’s capital to small town school boards, from religious institutions to neighborhood associations many are using their positions not to lead but rather for their advantage.
Of course this dynamic is not new. History is filled with tyrants and dictators. What appears to be harder to find – regardless of political, institutional, or most cultural backgrounds – is those with power using it not for their own gain but for the greater good.
Decades ago I had an early mentor by the name of Bennett Sims who founded the Institute for Servant Leadership at Emory. He always posed the question to me, “Are you starting with you, Brian, or are you starting with those you lead? One is using your power for yourself, the other is using it for those you’ve been called to serve.”
Bennett’s teachings were based on what I would argue is the preeminent leader who used his is power “not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28 / Mark 10:45).
“Go out in to the world in peace. Have courage. Hold on to what is good. Return no evil for evil. Strengthen the faint-hearted. Support the weak. Help the suffering. Honor everyone. Love and serve God, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” Book of Common Prayer 1928