Check yourself before you wreck yourself (and your church)

Power, authority, and accountability have always been hot topics among leaders. And they should be. Especially in the Church. Our culture has been screaming for a handful of years now that – as church leaders – positional authority is meaning less and less and moral authority is all we maintain. Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. Because it forces us to figure out how to navigate what Jesus said… you know… the whole first will be last and last will be first thing (Mt.20:16).

Although this thought is central to Christ’s idea for the church, we have a hard time even defining true servant leadership, much less living it out. And while this truth should change the way we lead, for many of us, unfortunately it doesn’t. We’ve all seen the flip side of this biblical truth through the many versions of the saying most attributed to John Dalberg-Action:

“Power Corrupts and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.”

I recently read a spin on this quote that has an insightful addition:

“Absolutely. Power corrupts, but it corrupts only those who think they deserve it.”

Jonah Lehrer wrote an helpful article for the Wall Street Journal on the relationship between these two topics. Here are some of noteworthy thoughts from his research:

The Bad News:

  • People in power tend to reliably overestimate their moral virtue, which leads them to stifle oversight. They lobby against regulators, and fill corporate boards with their friends. The end result is sometimes power at its most dangerous.
  • “It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” Mr. Keltner says. “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.”
  • Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making.
  • According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others.
  • The feeling of eminence led people to conclude that they had a good reason for speeding (bending the rules)—they’re important people, with important things to do.
  • The same flawed thought processes triggered by authority also distort our ability to evaluate information and make complex decisions.
  • Instead of analyzing the strength of the argument, those with authority focus on whether or not the argument confirms what they already believe. If it doesn’t, then the facts are conveniently ignored.
  • One recent study found that overconfident leaders were more likely to pursue innovation and take their organizations in new technological directions. Unchecked, however, these instincts can lead to a big fall.

The Good News:

  • According to the survey by Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley… “the most “powerful” and respected—were also the most considerate and outgoing, and scored highest on measures of agreeableness and extroversion. In other words, the nice guys finished first.”
  • There is no easy cure for the paradox of power. Mr. Keltner argues that the best treatment is transparency, and that the worst abuses of power can be prevented when people know they’re being monitored (Accountability).
  • Other studies have found similar results in the military, corporations and politics. “People give authority to people that they genuinely like,” says Mr. Keltner (Moral Authority).
  • There is something deeply uplifting about this research. It’s reassuring to think that the surest way to accumulate power is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power.

To read the entire story click HERE


About Brandon Hatmaker

Church Planter, Missional Strategist, Non-Profit Collaborator, and Author of "Barefoot Church: Serving the Least in a Consumer Culture". View all posts by Brandon Hatmaker

2 responses to “Check yourself before you wreck yourself (and your church)

  • April

    I was on the staff of a church where the lead pastor exhibited many of the “bad” bullet points. It did a lot of damage to a lot of people, and there are a lot of church-less, mission-less, “walking wounded” as a result.

  • Domenic Marbaniang

    The spin is consistent: “Absolutely. Power corrupts, but it corrupts only those who think they deserve it.” The Corinthian church was divided over affiliations, Authority-Affiliate mis-structure. Paul responded: “For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (2Corinthians 4:7).

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