More Power II to You: Freedom and Trust in Organizational Leadership
By Neil Pembroke
Rather than deterrence-based leadership, a model in which leaders risk trusting imitates God’s covenant, and it produces work, creativity, and fidelity to mission.
I teach Christian Studies in a public university. I well remember the first retreat led by our new Head of School. He adopted a fairly grumpy tone. At one point I thought I was back in high school and my Headmaster was laying down the law: “I want you to know that I’ll be checking your phone bill. If you go over $30 for the month, expect me to come knocking on your door!”
This is an example of deterrence-based trust. Managers trust their subordinates because there is close monitoring and sanctions against opportunistic behaviour. It fits within the command-and-control approach to management. A little bit of this may be okay, but there is a better way.
I offer a more intelligent and productive way for leaders to handle trust and risk. Let me introduce you to Power II. Power II is a concept developed by the political philosopher, Sverre Raffnsøe. It’s trust-as-power. When leaders trust their subordinates they hand over part of themselves. They run the risk that those they place trust in will disappoint them. In this sense, they are placing themselves in the hands of their subordinates, to an extent. So Power II is really about a gift exchange—like we see in preliterate societies. In that cultural context, if I give you a gift you are under a moral obligation to reciprocate. A moral contract is set up. Similarly, when leaders take a risk and trust their subordinates (by delegating, for example), they lodge a moral claim: “I’ve stepped out on a limb and placed trust in you. Don’t disappoint me.” It is the moral duty of the subordinate to work diligently and creatively, and in line with the leader’s vison and aims. In trusting subordinates, leaders are em-powered. By taking a risk and offering a gift to their subordinates, they create a condition in which it is quite likely that the outcomes they are looking for (hard work, creativity, and fidelity to the corporate mission) will actually eventuate.
You may be thinking, “That’s a nice theory, but how does it work out in practice? We can all tell stories of people engaging in opportunistic behavior. It could be anything from pilfering items from the work supplies cupboard, to pushing work on others down the line and claiming credit, to serious misappropriation of funds. I found this in my ABC News feed a couple of days ago: “Former senior public executive Paul Whyte and another man, Jacob Anthonisz, have been charged with using fake invoices to fraudulently take $2.5 million in taxpayers’ money. Police later revealed in court the final amount allegedly stolen could be up to $25 million.”
So does the Power II theory really work? I’m not absolutely sure, but there is a body of empirical research that suggests that it does. Feeling trusted by one’s leader is associated with increased performance, greater job satisfaction, and increased commitment to organizational citizenship. “Organizational citizenship” refers to behavior that is discretionary; it’s not part of the job description and is not recognized by the formal reward system. The end result is promoting efficient and effective functioning of an organization. An example would be helping someone out in a different section who is snowed under when you have a little space in your workday. We need more research to confirm this, but it does seem that the thinking behind a Power II approach has a basis in reality.
A number of scholars interested in leadership in organizations have worked with the concept of God-as-leader. Neil Remington Abramson sets up a comparison between God’s leadership in the Abraham story and modern vision-casting and ethical leadership. His conclusion is that God’s leadership approach is very modern, but God accords a high value to something that is not nearly so prominent in contemporary leadership theory—namely, quality of relationship. Matthew Viau analyses Psalm 91 to show that God’s leadership behavior suggests an addition to the existing model of transformational leadership. The divine leadership displayed in the psalm manifests the four factors in traditional transformational leadership theory, and indicates inclusion of a fifth element: personalized protection. Reflecting the accent in open theology on the freedom God grants to human beings, Carolyn Bohler offers the provocative metaphor of God as jazz band leader. God evokes certain themes in the “music” that humans play (beauty, peace, love, and justice), but God grants freedom to us so that we can play the song according to our own particular style.
I like the God-as-leader approach to theological reflection on organizational leadership very much. It strikes me that what we see in the God-David relationship as it is narrated in 2 Samuel 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2 is God adopting a Power II approach. In discussing this covenantal relationship, I aim to draw out the crucial role that freedom plays. (Here I want to thank Walter Brueggemann for his very helpful lead.) In a bold and risky move, God chooses to grant David a largely free run.
God (Yahweh) is present and involved in the narrative, but human choices and human actions are accorded a significant role in determining historical events. What really stands out in this narrative history is the freedom granted to David and to the other actors. Naturally enough, Yahweh takes a lead role and establishes boundaries. David is not free to act just as he pleases; he must align his decisions and actions with the divine requirements of righteousness, justice, and compassion. But the scope for free thought and action that God grants is astonishing.
We see in the succession narrative a new casting of the divine presence. Yahweh’s role is essentially to create a context. The context that God constructs has two sides. On the side of Yahweh, there is absolute fidelity, wise counsel, and superabundant blessing. On David’s side, there is faith and fidelity. David is free, but he is not emancipated from faith. Faith and freedom here are two sides of the one coin. David trusts in Yahweh; Yahweh trusts David with freedom and grants him a large swath in which to exercise this freedom.
The oracle in Second Samuel 7 is also very significant in terms of our story of Yahweh’s loving gift of freedom and remarkable display of trust in David. What we see here is an astonishing transformation by Yahweh of David’s situation in life. The change is patently the result of Yahweh’s action, not David’s: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel” (2 Sam 7:8b). Then comes an amazingly generous and risky promise: “I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in their own place, and be disturbed no more…Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever (2 Sam 7: 9b-13).
What is particularly noteworthy here is the unconditional nature of Yahweh’s promise to David and to his house. David will surely fall. He may have a strong faith and (for the most part at least) display good moral character, but he is also frail, weak, and a sinner. That is to say, he shares in the human condition. His descendants will just as surely fall. But God will not fall back on his promise; the covenant is an eternal one. Amazingly, Yahweh has signed a blank check. That is not his usual way of doing business.
The four sin stories in the succession narrative speak to Yahweh’s expansive love and buoyant commitment to freedom for David. Yahweh continues to trust even when David shows himself to be untrustworthy. There is a risk in trusting a subordinate. God refuses to step back from that; God absorbs all the risk of opening up a free space for his king to think, plan, and act. When David falls, as is inevitable, Yahweh naturally enough requires repentance and amendment, but Yahweh does not cease to trust; the gift of freedom is given unconditionally. David needs the security of knowing that Yahweh is constant and his promises eternal in order to develop as an innovative and ultimately truly great ruler of God’s people.
I say to leaders of organizations: “More Power II to you.” Trust-as-power is the smart and generous approach to leadership of the modern organization. From a biblical perspective, there is clear evidence that God’s leadership style is of the Power II variety.
Neil Pembroke is an ordained minister in the Uniting Church in Australia and Associate Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. Neil is the author of 7 books and more than 60 articles in the field of practical theology.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.