In my last post, I unpacked the art of influencing. The second major challenge of second chair leadership is to understand the nature of authority. This is key to leading when the vision or the decision is not yours.

In John 19, Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate in the face of questions about where he came from, whether he is a king, whether he is the Son of God. Pilate finally asks in frustration, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” (v10). Jesus shares a secret of authority in that moment, to that sole audience: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been give you from above” (v11). Authority comes from above—from the power you represent, the one who sent you, the one in whose name you act.

The Roman centurion in Luke 7 shows an astounding grasp of the principle that leadership is stewardship of the authority we have been given. Jesus himself marvels at the man’s faith, which flows from his understanding of the authority given to Jesus from above. He believes Jesus can simply speak the word, and his son will be healed. Why is he so certain? “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Lk 7:8). It follows that if Jesus is acting on behalf of the Creator, he has command of the very elements. Indeed, in the next chapter, even the wind and waves obey Jesus’ orders (Lk 8:25).

There are three primary challenges to a second-chair leader when it comes to authority.
1. When lines of authority are unclear. Confidence comes from clarity in direction and scope of authority. When either is unclear or confusing, a leader’s ability to lead is undermined. When there is daylight between the first- and second-chair leaders, followers can be disillusioned, or they can be emboldened to take advantage, playing one against the other.

2. When we disagree with our supervisor. It is inevitable that you, as a second-chair leader, will be asked to carry out a decision you don’t believe in or spoke out against. Even leading within a servant leadership model, where each has ample opportunity to be heard and to provide input toward a group decision, will lead to decisions that weren’t unanimous. So now you are committed to carrying out a decision that you once argued against. Your team may well make the same arguments you made. Is your job as a second-chair leader to toe the company line or confide in your team that you made the same objections?

Siding with your team against those in authority is not leadership. Leadership means carrying out a decision even if it’s not popular, even if you might agree with some of the criticism, even if you have your own doubts. The time to make your opinions, your arguments, your doubts clear is in the privacy of a meeting with your boss or leadership team. Once you leave that room, you move forward with one voice. The alternative erodes trust and undermines leadership authority.

3. When our authorities disagree. The confusion for believers is that we have a higher master than our immediate supervisor. Christ is our master, just as he is master over our direct reports and our supervisor (Eph 6:5-9). When our two sources of authority disagree, the choice over which authority we will obey is clear. When we’ve expressed our objection on biblical grounds, and our earthly supervisor disagrees, what then?

Think about Joseph again. He is a man under authority. First, he could clearly see God’s hand in his life—the successes, the tragedies and the waiting were all part of his preparation for this role. He knows God has sent him to this position (Gen 45:8), and he is a man who will not compromise his high morals (Gen 39:9). Yet he is clearly also under Pharaoh’s leadership. If he disagrees with Pharaoh, can he disobey? Besides loss of position, he may face exposure of his past, perhaps a return to prison, perhaps a loss of life. But Joseph could make a stand, or surely he could engineer an escape from the country. Most of us, even leaders, can quit if we’re faced with bad choices.

On the other hand, Joseph knows that the prophecy hasn’t been fulfilled, and God hasn’t completed his mission. He can’t walk away. God has prepared him, led him to this point and filled him with his Spirit (Gen 41:38). So Joseph co-leads Egypt through this period of adversity as best he can, balancing the tensions to the point that today, we can’t see light between him and Pharaoh.

Ultimately, confidence comes from the knowledge that your supervisor will be held to account. The Lord himself raises up and removes authorities (Dan 2:21, Jn 19:11), holds leaders to account (Heb 13:17), and rewards faithful servants (Eph 6:6-8). We can only be responsible for ourselves and the way we respond to the situation we’re dealt. God will take care of the rest.


Joseph series:

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In 1970, Robert Greenleaf introduced a paradox that swept the business community: the idea of The Servant as Leader. Many leaders have picked up his books, embraced the concept and developed a servant leadership methodology. They do mind tricks like inverting the organizational chart, and they develop great management practices, all while missing Greenleaf’s point: he wasn’t writing to leaders.

Few recall that Greenleaf wasn’t suggesting that leaders should become servants. Rather,

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That perhaps 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 natural servant, the person who is servant first, is more likely to persevere and refine a particular hypothesis on what serves another’s highest priority needs than is the person who is leader first and who later serves out of promptings of conscience or in a conformity with normative expectations. (p50)

Greenleaf was starting with different building blocks: a different attitude, a different spirit, a different person who gets noticed and promoted. In this sense, Nehemiah was a great candidate for development. He learned servantship through years as an exiled cupbearer, attending to the needs of a foreign king. When he eventually aspired to lead, Nehemiah didn’t lose his sense of grounding and character. As a godly governor, he really believed his call was to serve and relieve the people, not add further burden upon them. He was a servant leader long before it became the rage.

So why did Nehemiah use his platform to critique servant leadership?

It turns out that even servanthood doesn’t guarantee the right attitude. In chapter 5, Nehemiah’s turns the harsh glare of his spotlight on his predecessors, who laid heavy burdens on the people. He doesn’t stop there, condemning their followers: “Even their servants lorded it over the people” (Neh 5:15).

That sentence just sticks in my craw! I can’t rationalize this seemingly-impossible paradox. How can servants lord it over anyone?

But we do, don’t we? We all leverage any power we can get. From the exaggeration regularly found in CVs to the length of a person’s title, we all use every tool at our disposal. There’s a constant temptation for the administrative support staff of any leader to use the influence of their boss to gain power for themselves. If we’re really honest, we’re all laid bare by this critic of the accepted business practice of his day.

How do we steer clear of lording servantship? What can we learn from Nehemiah?

1. The position doesn’t change the person.
The position of governor came with a high level of responsibility and expectations, one of which was hospitality. Chapter 5 tells us Nehemiah could anticipate as many as 150 gathering at his table any given day. He was a good host, assuring that they had the finest food and a selection of wines. He was a connoisseur, after all.

This was clearly a business expense, and it was a right his predecessors had readily used. In fact, to claim the allowance would not draw any attention, while refusing the perk could create headlines. Nehemiah chose to forego his rights.

Why? My pastor, Glen Nudd, notes:

There was something bigger going on in Nehemiah’s heart and mind than the opportunity to enjoy an enormous hospitality budget.

This decision alone demonstrates that Nehemiah did not change when he got a promotion. After stepping up to enormous responsibility and position, he didn’t forsake humility.

2. Followers pay a cost.
Pastor Nudd says any perk received by a person in a position is a tax, and taxes always have a cost.

No government programs are ever free; they have to be paid by someone.

Nehemiah perceived that the people already carried a heavy burden, and he wasn’t going to add to it. Instead, he sought to lighten it.

The ‘servant-style’ of godly leadership demands that we ask ourselves questions about privileges we’re given, offered, and expected to take and then to ask ourselves the question: ‘If I take advantage of that particular thing, could it potentially undermine my mission to serve those I’m leading?’

3. We are all followers.
What was Nehemiah’s motivation? Verse 15 says it was the fear of God. Because of his understanding of his position in relation to God, he knew his position in relation to the people.

Centuries later, Jesus would marvel at the faith of a Roman with high position willing to beg him to heal a highly-valued servant. This centurion told Jesus he was not worthy to have him step into his home, but knew he could heal with a word.

For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Matthew 8:9)

It’s easy to see the nature of authority in that quote. Sure, the centurion could tell people what to do. The key is that first phrase, “For I too am a man under authority.” If we know who we’re really serving, then we don’t abuse power; we handle authority and position with care. Servants don’t lord it over anyone.

4. Servants can “lead upwards.”
Followers usually emulate the behaviors and attitudes they see in their leaders. Nehemiah’s servants were right there with the people, rolling up their sleeves to lay stones in the wall. But what happens to followers who serve beneath a lording leader? Do they get a pass?

Chapter 3 draws out of obscurity the actual men and women who built the wall of Jerusalem. In the middle of this chapter, we see a case study of servants who plotted their own course. Verse 5 says the Tekoites repaired a specific part of the wall, and verse 27 adds that they went the extra mile, helping build a second section. They went above and beyond in spite of the example of those who should have been their role models. While the Tekoites put in the hard work, “their nobles would not stoop to serve their Lord” (Neh 3:5). What powerful phrasing, though a footnote is quick to point out the word “Lord” could also mean lords, or supervisors. Frankly, it’s all the same. When we serve our supervisors, our leaders and our followers, we’re serving our Lord (Eph 6:7).

Before Nehemiah ever aspired to lead, he revealed his posture and his heart. In his prayer in chapter 1, he used the word “servant” seven times. He put himself in good company with Moses and Israel as a “servant of the Lord.” It was easy for Nehemiah to think that way, because I’m convinced he thought the two words – “leader” and “servant” – were synonyms.

Nehemiah never undermined his mission. His character inspired a generation of Jewish leaders. His honest account in the book of Nehemiah influenced many generations to come. And as an exile in a hostile culture, he likely offered a striking contrast to the leadership style of an ungodly king in an ungodly culture. On that point alone, his life and his leadership are certainly relevant to us today.

In October 2009, my shortest blog post (appropriately) asked how I could have 23 devoted Twitter followers if I’d never tweeted. The point being that you can’t follow a stationary object. Just for the record, I’ve decided to start tweeting, but I’m still working out my strategy. I don’t want to be a random tweeter. But that’s not the point I want to make here.

Over the last two years, I’ve tried to come up with working definitions of leadership and management. I’ve struggled with understanding where the murky swampland between the two firms up on either bank. And I’ve rejected numerous definitions as being too simplistic. Or too biased.

It hit me that the main requirement for leadership is that you have followers. That suggests two parts to a working definition:

  • First, it’s not about position, but about influence. Position or no position, whether you feel like a leader or not, it’s clear: if you have followers, you’re a leader. The opposite implication is just as true.
  • Second, you can’t have followers if you’re not moving. Therefore, leadership implies change.

Therefore, let me give the definitions a stab. Feel free to add your thoughts.

Leadership: the stewardship of one’s personal authority over others to set their pace and direction.

Management: the stewardship of one’s positional authority to maximize the use of resources toward the previously-set pace and direction.

A few clarifications. I don’t think it’s fair to say, as some do, that managers protect the status quo. Managers encourage movement toward the ends, but they don’t try to change the pace or define the direction as much as rearticulate the vision.

I also think it’s worth defining what I mean by personal authority and positional authority. These terms are attempts to specify the source of a leader’s influence, borrowed from Dr. Paul Hersey. Positional authority or power is the capacity to influence others by one’s dominant organizational position. In contrast, personal power is the capacity to influence others by one’s own being.

So, there you are. Give me your reaction to these definitions. With your help, maybe we can craft something worthwhile.

3 Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning… (NLT)

3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you… (NIV)

Two versions of the same verse cast slightly different light on the subject of authority. In my July post on authority, I named two kinds of non-positional authority. Paul refers to both here. There’s a reason Paul can speak into the lives of the Church in Rome — because he has spiritual and moral authority in their lives. I think it’s noteworthy that he doesn’t say, “Because of my position as apostle…” There are a couple of times when Paul took a lot of space in his epistles defending his role as an apostle. Apparently, there was some question as to his position since he did not spend any time with Jesus himself. But here he’s not referring to any positional kind of power.

Paul has authority because of two reasons. First, because of his investment in the Roman church, they have given him moral authority in their lives. Second, because God has given authority to him. It’s by God’s grace — what Christ did to pull him out of the life he was in — that he has the privilege and authority of influencing this group. He can therefore teach, encourage, cajole and rebuke the Church in the most powerful city in the world.

Mind you, Paul didn’t necessarily shy away from titles. He regularly identifed himself as “bond slave of Christ” and “chief of sinners.” A position of genuine humility can go a long way to building authority.

Those who have authority can bestow it on others.

There are a few verses that talk about this kind of loaned authority. In John 10:18, Jesus says he has the authority to lay down his life or pick it up again at will. In John 17:2, he points out that the Father has granted Jesus the authority to then give eternal life to anyone the Father has given him. In John 19, Pilate tells Jesus he has the power to release or crucify him. Jesus quietly responds that he wouldn’t have that power if God (Jesus) didn’t give it to him. So, who is the one really in charge of that situation?

Those who have power have the ability to give their power to others. The Roman Centurion certainly understood this. The reason he believed Jesus could heal with just a word was because of his own context and ability to exert authority over those subject to him. But the way he says it is not, “I too have great authority.” Instead, he says, “I myself am a man under authority.” In other words, being under authority gives you authority. Who you represent or speak for makes a difference. When I was a project manager for a senior VP a few years ago, I understood that I was a peon in a room full of VPs. But occasionally, I would enter that room with a message from the senior VP. I had huge authority at those times.

Established leaders have authority. With their position, experience and networks, established leaders have a great amount of power. But, with power comes great responsibility. I believe one of the primary responsibilities for established leaders is to  use their authority on behalf of young, emerging leaders.

Consider the story of Jesus at a Pharisee’s dinner party. He’s interacting with a crowd of power brokers when suddenly a hysterical prostitute crashes the party. She debases herself, crying at Jesus’ feet and then using her hair to dry the tears and then anoint his feet with expensive perfume. The guests begin to murmur. At this point, Jesus has a choice. He can recognize her and give her status in the group. Or he can ignore her, protecting his own status. Of course, he chooses the former and even elevates her at the expense of his host. He lends her credibility.

Another example from my own life. I know my 3-year-old daughter’s personality very well. When we host a community group in our house, she’ll often break away from the kids in a back bedroom and run into the middle of our meeting, interrupting the discussion. As the leader of the group, I have the power to crush her by telling her to go away, in which she will become very shy and hurt. She’ll leave, but she’ll be inconsolable for ten minutes. Or I can look at her and acknowledge her, in which case she gets a big smile and runs to me. That’s what Jesus did. That’s loaned influence.

A reluctant leader is like my daughter. When she takes a careful step forward, established leaders have the ability to snuff out that flame or fan it by loaning their influence.

Young leaders give authority away. I’m not necessarily talking about delegation, but about how young leaders are less concerned with who gets the credit and more concerned with the accomplishments of a team.

They look for people who have a passion and a vision for a particular area and turn that area of responsibility over to them – to succeed or fail in glorious fashion. The result, with this wary but entrepreneurial generation, might be an incredibly creative idea that’s not ruined by top-down management. Or it might be a half-baked idea that falls flat. But a generation of students who have been told they can be anything they want to be and who have helped develop the technology to flatten the world wants an equal voice. They want a chance to speak into the process and try new things. The end product takes on the qualities of the team, and may look entirely different from anything the leader envisioned at the beginning.

My own observation is that young leaders get incredibly frustrated at the turf battles over who will get credit for the work. Let’s just get it done! The greed and selfishness that shows up in setting all the parameters up front has kept many a good idea from getting off the ground. For instance, April’s Wired magazine comments that the turf war over multitouch technology and gesture-based computing is “going to be ugly — and potentially fatal to the movement.” Group ownership of an idea and shared credit allows quicker response times and more creativity. Open sourcing almost always works better than closed.

Of course, this teamwork characteristic has big implications when it comes to interviews and resumes. A great accomplishment listed on a resume might require a follow-up question from the observant interviewer on what that person’s role was in the success of the team.

So, why can young leaders freely give away authority? (Am I not casting an idyllic view of the new generation of leaders? Probably, but not intentionally. I just think the new generations have different sins than their predecessors.) Young leaders are often simply not attracted to the trappings of power. No amount of money is incentive enough to offset the cost in time spent with friends and family. No perks can offset the long hours and increased stress. Money is not the idol it used to be. So when the goal is not consolidation of power, authority does not need to be hoarded.