Power-Less Leadership

By Jeffery D Skinner

Since God’s leadership is power-less, the best leaders are also power-less.

Leadership is hard. Yet, even if people remain skeptical, leadership has never been more popular. Universities are offering degrees in leadership, bloggers are writing about leadership, companies are studying leadership, and the world is searching for the perfect leader. Ironically, it seems the more we study it and the harder we try to be better leaders or identify the perfect model, the more it eludes us. Some might argue there is a crisis of world leadership and that is the reason it seems to be on the minds of so many people.

In his most recent book, “Ring of Fire,” Leonard Sweet uses the metaphor of a “global ring of fire…Moving fault lines that generate earthquakes and volcanic eruptions multiple times a day.” These “seismic” events are constantly reshaping the landscape and making the atmosphere toxic. No wonder leadership today is so difficult.

When asked, most people have very little trouble identifying experiences they have had with poor leaders or identifying poor leadership. “Lead. Follow. Or get out of the way.” “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” “Leadership is the art of convincing people to go and do things they would not otherwise do.” Maybe you recall a leader who asked you to do a job and then was constantly looking over your shoulder to be sure you did it “right.” The opposite of such a leader is the one who asks you to a do a job, is then unavailable to review progress, and seemingly abandons all interest in the entire project. Volumes could be written telling stories of poor leadership. Even if finding the perfect leader is elusive, everyone recognizes poor leadership when confronted with a bad leader. No one desires to serve under such toxic leaders. No one desires to serve a leader who is controlling, does not give clear direction, has double standards, has a lack of presence, or is an unclear communicator.

Ironically, such qualities are often identified as characteristics of God. Traditionally, God has been characterized as being an unclear communicator, distant, controlling, power hungry, and even angry. Popular scriptures are cited such as Isaiah 55:8, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD” (God is mystery) or Isaiah 43:13, “Even from eternity I am He, and there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it?” (God is all-powerful and all controlling). The typical views of God tend to cast God as a benevolent dictator who acts upon the whims of God’s divine mood. If we do not accept such characteristics in our leaders, why should God get a pass? No one can be certain whether we have experienced such poor leadership and as poor leaders unintentionally project those views on to God, or whether our views of God shape how we lead? Is that the reason many tolerate bad leaders? Is that why we are sometimes such bad leaders? Perhaps we are resentful? Maybe we are in agreement with Johnathan Edwards who said we are “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and so we take it out on everyone else?

Maybe, if people were offered an alternative to an all controlling, all powerful, all knowing God, there could be more widespread agreement on the definition of leadership and thus better leaders? Perhaps if people did not believe God had one standard for God’s conduct and another standard for God’s creation, leaders wouldn’t have double standards? Maybe if people did not believe God micromanaged their lives, they wouldn’t accept a leader who micromanages? What if God is not all controlling, all powerful, or even a mystery? What if we held God to the same standards as we hold leaders? What if God wasn’t a benevolent dictator? What if God is not the divine hypocrite who has a different standard operating procedure for God’s creation than God does for God’s self? What if we do not have to make exceptions for God’s leadership in our lives?

The good news is there is an alternative.

Scripture tells us God is love! God is not just a loving God, God’s nature is love. God has no choice except to love. God could no more not love than a fish could not swim. Love does not control. God’s nature does not flow from a divine need for power. God’s power source is God’s love. Since God is like no other God, God’s love is like no other love. God’s love is self-giving, other-empowering, non-coercive love. In other words, because God empowers others, God is power-less. God cannot force creation to do anything. God requires the co-operation of God’s creation. This theory of “uncontrolling love” or power-less leadership is an interpretation that Thomas Jay Oord published in a book called God Can’t as well as other books that explain God’s “uncontrolling love” in detail.

If God’s love is uncontrolling and God’s people are supposed to mirror God’s love toward others, how should Godly leadership look? Having already discussed some images of leaders that are not healthy or inspirational, let us turn our attention to some leaders and characteristics of leaders that could be considered in the vein of uncontrolling love. History seems to be filled with leaders who at least embody some of these characteristics.

Few people would disagree that Gandhi was an inspirational leader. His fight for Indian nationalism against British rule did not include violence. He sought to inspire his enemies; not coerce them. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s weapons of choice were the words of letters he wrote while sitting in jail, in sermons preached from pulpits in the “projects” and speeches in the streets. King ultimately gave his life for his cause—the cross upon which he gave his life for the freedom of his people was a hotel balcony in Memphis.

Other great leaders from history, for whom there is widespread agreement on their embodiment of great leadership qualities, include George Washington, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, Hellen Keller, Alexander Hamilton, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and Pope John Paul II. The followers of Pope John Paul II credit him with giving Catholics a clear understanding of Catholic identity and its beliefs. Emmeline Pankhurst led the women’s suffragette movement and ultimately opened the door for women to have the right to vote. The problem has been that once these leaders pass, their stories become exaggerated; their mistakes are overlooked. It is easier to be gracious after death. This process of mythologizing does not suggest that they did not exist or that their accomplishments never happened. However, one problem with mythologizing a leader or his or her legacy is that it becomes an idealized standard that is impossible to attain. The result is many refuse to attempt to attain it at all.

Perhaps Oord’s power-less view of God is a view of leadership that is simultaneously attractive and attainable. Robert Greenleaf coined the phrase “servant leader” in an essay first published in 1970. In that essay, “The Servant Leader,” Greenleaf said, “the servant-leader is servant first.” The servant leader is “sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.” The servant leader seeks the interest and the needs of the people first and the needs of the organization last. The theory suggests that if the leader serves the people, they will be inspired to work to meet the needs of the organization. The servant leader works as a part of a team where “coercion”, “intimidation”, and “boss” are considered dirty words and are never on the table as options. For the servant leader, leadership is not about the accumulation of power and control; it is about empowering others and allowing them to be in control. The servant leader trusts the team to work together, cooperate with each other, and to work with the leader to fulfill the mission. In fact, the servant leader is not always leading. At any given point in the process of fulfilling the mission, the leader simply becomes another member of the team, trusting the expertise of another.

Greenleaf believed that servant leader organizations could and would radically transform the known world. In his second essay, “The Institution as Servant,” he wrote:

This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions—often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.

Perhaps in a world suffering from the trauma of volcanic personalities, seismic shifts, and a toxic atmosphere, power-less leadership is the answer? Perhaps the answer has been under our collective noses the entire time. Matthew 20:25-28 finds Jesus facing a hostile context as well. People were searching for a leader then too. The Roman soldiers lined their streets and occupied their villages. The Caesar of Rome ruled with an iron fist and the religious elite watched for and interpreted every action in the spirit of an oppressive law to empower themselves. Anyone who dared to step out of line or failed to recognize his/her place in the pecking order was quickly punished. It was to these people that Jesus said:

You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones play the tyrant over them. It shall not be this way among you. But whoever wants to be great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you shall be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.

If God entrusts God’s creation with the power of choice and believes in their capacity to do good, cooperate to the completion of God’s mission for the world, and become power-less for the sake of us, perhaps we too should consider power-lessness. Imagine such a leader.

Jeffery D. Skinner is a business leader and serves as the communications pastor at Gainesville First Church of the Nazarene in the Greater Atlanta area. He earned his Doctorate in Organizational Leadership and Professional Practice from Trevecca University in Nashville, Tennessee. Skinner is the author of the essay, “Miracle Quotas,” in the book Uncontrolling Love: Essays Exploring the Love of God with introductions by Thomas Jay Oord and other articles on God’s love. He and his wife, Lisa, have two adopted children, Blaine (16) and Hayden (13). Jeffery loves nature and technology.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

UL Leadership Cover