Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

July 2018
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Leadership Letters

Five Kinds of Power

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

A leader helps someone move from where he is now to somewhere else. But what about how the leader motivates that move? We may define leadership “power” as the leader’s capacity to influence others to move from where they are now to somewhere else.

There are essentially five reasons why people follow someone else, or five kinds of “power”:

Coercive power

A coercive leader uses the fear of punishment to motivate his followers.

In some situations, the fear of punishment is legitimate. For example, an employer has the authority to fire someone who doesn’t fulfill his obligations. Moreover, a parent must establish fear of punishment early in the life of a small child, just as God chastens His children so that they learn to obey him (Heb. 12:6).

The fear of God’s future judgment often motivates people to serve him now (Job 28:28, Matt. 10:28, 2 Cor. 5:10-11). Coercive power is also appropriate in the context of the church. The New Testament church, used the prospect of church discipline to prompt sinning members to repent (1 Cor. 5:11, 2 Thess. 3:10-15).

In general, however, coercion is not an appropriate kind of power for Christian leaders to use (1 Pet. 5:3). This kind of power can degenerate into sheer brute force. It was used by the political leaders of Jesus’ day, and is often used by military dictators and some religious cults.

Coercive power, while it can be effective for gaining obedience and appropriate for disciplinary action, carries heavy costs. It drains physical, emotional and spiritual energy from both leader and follower. It undermines morale, and destroys trust and commitment. Plus, the effectiveness of this power wanes over time, forcing leaders to repeat it with greater force and heavier supervision. After all of that, the actual obedience it obtains is grudging and superficial.

Reward power

If you do what your boss tells you to do, there may be a promotion or a raise in it for you. Students who desire the reward of good grades will work hard. You train your dog to obey by giving it treats. This is reward power at work.

Reward power is also sometimes appropriate in the Christian life. For example, the promise of future rewards is a legitimate motive for faithfulness now (1 Cor. 3:14, 9:17; 2 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 5:12, 6:18-21, 19:27-29; 1 Pet 1:14). However, the rewards in the Bible are always eternal rewards. Material, temporal rewards frequently become stumbling blocks to one’s motives (cf. 2 Kings 5:26, 1 Tim. 6:5-6, 1 Pet. 5:2).

I knew of a ministry that planted a new church in a foreign country. The leaders found it very hard to get anything done, so they began to pay the new believers to do various things for them. After a while, it became impossible to get any of the local Christians to do any kind of ministry unless they were paid to do it!

The laborer is worthy of his hire (1 Tim. 5:18), but this should not be his motive for serving. Thus, reward power in the materialistic sense is not appropriate for most forms of Christian ministry.

Like coercive power, reward power is effective for gaining temporary obedience and performance. However, it undermines more effective motives and overall commitment. In organizations where resources are scarce (most churches!) this type of power is difficult to maintain. It can be destructive if the wrong individuals are rewarded or if partiality is practiced. Ultimately, it encourages self-centered individualism and ignores the reality that Christians should not be driven by material incentives, but eternal ones.

Taken together, the coercive and reward strategies form the “donkey” approach to leadership: leading by means of a carrot (reward) and a stick (coercion). However, if you treat people like donkeys they may start to act like donkeys (Ps. 32:9)!

Positional power

This kind of authority resides in the position rather than the person. In other words, “I’m the leader, so you must follow me.” This is the organizational equivalent of “because-I’m-the-Mommy” power.

A new factory owner went to lunch at a nearby restaurant which featured a “blue plate special” that allowed for no substitutions. When he asked for a second piece of butter, the waitress refused. Irritated, he called for the manager, but she also refused him. “Do you know who I am?” he asked indignantly. “I am the new owner of the factory across the street.” The woman smiled and said, “Do you know who I am, sweetie? I am the person who decides whether you get a second piece of butter.” The power of positional authority!

There are times when the use of positional power is appropriate (Rom. 13:1, Eph. 6:1-3). For example, people should obey police officers, school teachers, parents, and employers simply because they are the authorities. You may appropriately disagree with your boss about how to do something, but you should do it his way nevertheless – simply because he’s in charge (unless of course, it constitutes sin).

However, positional power should not be the main reason why leaders expect people to follow them.

This was the kind of leadership that the Pharisees exercised (Matt. 23:5-12). Positional power gains obedience, but it also lowers performance and commitment – people will only cooperate when the “boss” is around. It creates significant distance between leaders and their people, and any time a leader displays simple “humanity” or weakness, it weakens their position. The lack of transparency and accountability allowed by positional power puts the leader in a precarious situation of having few genuine nurturing friendships.

Expert power

This is based on the person and not on the position. Experts are influential because they supply needed information or skills. They have the credentials. People follow them because they know what they’re doing.

Certainly, Christian leaders should know what they’re doing (1 Tim. 3:4-5, 2 Tim. 2:15). However, just because you are the “smartest” person around does not mean you can expect others to follow you.

Of the types of power we’ve discussed so far, this one is more capable of gaining higher commitment, performance, and motivation from followers. However, it takes a long time to develop deep credibility, and leaders must actually possess the necessary knowledge and skills. Expert power is more difficult to obtain, and is not as effective in gaining quick compliance, particularly in the case of disobedience.

Servant power

Servant power is when people will follow you because they respect you. It’s not because you demand respect; it’s because you have earned it. People follow you because they want to follow you.

It’s not just that your followers will be punished if they don’t follow you, or rewarded if they do. It’s not just because you’re in charge and know what you’re doing. It’s because your followers admire you, they like you, they love you, they respect you. They want to follow you.

Servant leadership is a relationship based on personal influence, affection, esteem, and respect that encourages followers to freely respond to leadership. Another kind of leader may think of himself as a boss, but a servant leader will see himself as one who serves others. In fact, Jesus calls us His “friends” (John 15:15)!

As you might imagine by now, this is the Biblical basis for leadership power, and engenders high commitment, motivation, and performance in followers. It takes a long time to develop, and is not as effective in gaining quick compliance as the first three forms of power. Most importantly – it requires death to self and personal sacrifice.

If you are a leader that God has raised up, then servant power should be the primary reason that people follow you. If you took away your formal position, credentials and ability to reward or punish, will your people still choose to follow you? Servant leadership truly depends on who you are rather than on your position, title, knowledge, or ability to give rewards and punishments.

Which types of power do you rely on, and why?

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