Some of you will know that the combination of Healthy + Power + Exercise is not one that crosses my lips often. I’m rubbish at taking exercise properly (whether in its healthy or power forms). Give me a book about someone else doing exercise any day (eg you can’t do much better than Eric Newby’s sublime A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush). Furthermore, after spending recent months thinking about evangelical malaise and the last 10 years about theological implications of power abuse, the idea that any exercise of power can possibly be healthy seems remote.
Why put yourself through it?
A few friends were chewing on both issues on zoom last week. One made the obvious point that one unfortunate and potentially disastrous long-term consequence is that many will resist going into leadership altogether. The myriad demands and expectations are bad enough, but throw in the potential hazards, suspicion, and (potentially intrusive) scrutiny that has (understandably) arisen in recent years. In a parallel to that, from having got to know a number of politicians who are genuinely honourable and trusted men and women, and knowing something of the kind of abuse and vitriol they must endure (regardless of political position), I frequently have the same thought. Why would anybody of right mind volunteer to put themselves through that? Is it truly worth it?
Few observe the Zacharias/Smyth/Fletcher crises and deliberately set out to follow in their footsteps. But we are rightly warned that such behaviours always start somewhere, with incremental steps of one poor (even if small) decision after another. Anyone who knows themselves will surely fear that even if the outcomes are different in scale or nature, the potential for abuse remains. It’s a constant. This is by no means to flatten the horrors of what is now in the light; far from it (as regular readers here will note).
Yet the wider question lingers nevertheless: Why would anybody of right mind volunteer to risk such dangers? Why be a leader at all?
What options are there?
The problem is, as we are also reminded, is that for evil to triumph the good must do nothing (falsely attributed to Edmund Burke, as I discovered today!). Or as the philosopher Mill put it:
So somebody has to do it. And some clearly have gifts that make them suited to it (which is not to suggest this automatically gives them the necessary character). So how do we do power and authority (not the same thing, by the way) honourably and well? Is that even possible anymore? In some ways, much political and sociological, let alone theological, ink has been spilled on just that question. Since the Ancient Greeks and before.
So I’ve been going through the shelves and coming to various books I’ve looked to over the years for hope and inspiration. I don’t claim to live it out well, only that these folks have got there long before us in this current moment of heart-searching and crisis.
A few significant books for me personally, which does not mean I buy into everything they might say (in publication order):
- Pastor Power, Martha Stortz (Abingdon, 1993)
- Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: how to be an effective leader by confronting potential failures, McIntosh & Rima (Baker, 2007)
- Leading out of who you are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership, Simon Walker (Piquant, 2007)
- Upside Down: The Paradox of Servant Leadership, Stacy T. Rinehart (NavPress 2015)
- Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch (IVP, 2016)
- Give Up the Purple, Julyan Lidstone (Langham Lit, 2019)
So from time to time, I am thinking about posting some of the standout wisdom from these standouts (and others). The first is from the oldest on this little list, Martha Stortz’s PastorPower. My boss Paul Windsor has himself returned to this book often and, having only dipped into it a few years back, I zipped through it in just two sittings last month. The style might not be everybody’s cuppa but there is gold in them thar hills.
Essentially, she splits the key leadership postures into three:
- Power over others
- Power (from) within
- Power with/alongside
Crucially, while recent experiences might lead one to recoil from the first in favour of the second and especially the third, Stortz is clear. Each one has its place and necessity (or at least benefits), each brings its own risks, while each offering different opportunities to express aspects of living in the Imago Dei.
So here are my summary notes arranged in the table I started compiling as I read, simply because I was struggling to get my head around the dense seam of wisdom crammed into such a small space!
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I found “Leading out of who you are”, and the following books in this trilogy, a very helpful exploration of leadership / power / faith.
Thank you, I am looking forward to more great summaries.