Suspect your ability to handle power

As I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings to my boys, a series of moments stick in my mind: the times that Frodo seeks someone to give the ring to. Surely Aragorn or Gandalf or the Lady of Lothlorien would use the power benevolently to combat the evil of Sauron! Each one contemplates briefly the possibility of harnessing such amazing power and concludes that they wouldn’t be any less ruthless and horrific than previous owners. They therefore studiously avoid touching or looking at it, some even taking great satisfaction that they passed the test.

Last week at a leadership development event, we read together Henri Nouwen’s message, In the Name of Jesus. Nouwen is a Harvard man of great earthly success who ended up as a priest working among mentally handicapped people at the Daybreak community near Toronto. He cautions against the rationalization many Christians go through regarding power: that as long as it’s used to serve God and other human beings, it’s a good thing. He points out the irony that, throughout Church history,  followers of the one who emptied himself of power have used power for crusades, inquisitions, enslavement, opulence and manipulation of all kinds and forms. Then he cuts to the point.

What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistable? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.

Wow. Whether you follow Nouwen’s logic and conclude that love is the opposite of power, his words sure slice deep. He’s right: it is easier to control than to love, and yet the latter is clearly God’s command for anyone, but in particular leaders. Nouwen spoke from a long personal journey into the messy world of loving those that our culture overlooks. Control and ownership are wrong methodologies arising from wrong motivations from a wronged heart. Nouwen continues,

One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.

I remember when I worked in youth ministry that I lost count of the people who got into that field because of their own pain growing up. Few came from a healthy place and wanted others to share in that health; many more were on a personal journey to redemption and sought to help others avoid what they had experienced. But if you haven’t experienced real healing, how do you avoid temptations like power? I think Dan Allender has a lot of solutions in his book, Leading with a Limp. He suggests we confront our brokenness and allow God’s grace to redeem it. Failure and brokenness are not necessarily obstacles to leadership; they can be incredible motivators and a foundation for the right kind of servantly leadership. But those core needs must be addressed and the failures brought into the open.

Nouwen based much of his message on Peter’s example of being restored after abandoning and denying his friend and Rabbi Jesus. The lessons he learned on that beach in John 21 were to love deeply, receive love and give love to others. That was the basis for Peter’s leadership of the Church. It’s a lesson that many of his successors failed to get.

My boys were surprised when I told them I think of Lord of the Rings as a Christian story. I’m still teaching them the idea that a Christian story doesn’t mean that Jesus is a character, or that God is explicitly mentioned. Failure, redemption, fear, ambition, love, evil and desires are deeply woven into the story. And I think I can learn from the characters who suspected themselves and wouldn’t allow themselves to get near to raw, unbridled power.

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All it takes is a question

Don’t ask a question unless you already know the answer.

Have you heard that before? The paternalism in that quote makes my blood boil. I remember my wife and I were once part of a Bible study led by one of our pastors. When he’d ask a question, he’d dutifully faciltiate discussion, adeptly drawing in every participant… but then he always concluded with his own authoritative comment. As we began to realize that he was the only one with the right answer, our discussions became forced and clipped. Becky and I soon found a reason to stop participating in that group.

I’ve blogged before about the power of a question, quoting Ron Heifetz’s great line, “One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.” In The Leadership Jump, Jimmy Long pointed out that a “well-structured question” can draw emerging leaders into the creative and leadership process. It goes back to control. If you want the outcome to be exactly as you expect, then do all the work yourself. If you want a better result, with a strong developmental bent, then you have to work more as an art director.

When I worked with graphic designers, I would present the question or challenge but withhold my own possible answers until I saw what others came up with. I didn’t want my “authoritative” answer to steer or limit the creative potential of my staff. Offering creative freedom often resulted in an unpredictable but even more creative end product than I could have imagined. More often than not I ended up tucking away my own feeble attempt to answer the question!

Of course, there’s also the risk that your team’s creative ideas just won’t work. There’s a tension that you learn to manage between involving others and drawing out their best versus the fact that you have ultimate responsibility for the end product. I’ve had to make some tough calls as an art director and as a manager to take control back and change the direction. I’ve done it poorly, and I’ve done it well. On a few occasions, I’ve been able to do it in such a way that the team can still share ownership, by steering the project and keeping my staff engaged in the new direction. Usually it involved vulnerability and accepting blame.

So what are some great questions to ask? I’ll suggest a few this week, but I’d love to hear your questions as well.

Give power away

Control has a lot of appeal. It’s probably the reason most people get into leadership roles. But it’s overrated. The more complex the leadership settings I get into, the more I realize that there are so many factors that are utterly impossible to control. In Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender points out the illusions and pitfalls of trying to maintain control of complex situations, crises and chaos. Control is an illusion, he says. A controlling leader tries to limit chaos and uncertainty. Instead, they should be embraced as part of the creative process.

The only solution I’ve found to the pitfalls of control is to give it away. Not to have it taken by prying apart my dead fingers, but to consciously choose to give it away. Give what away? Over the next few posts, I’ll unpack a couple of ideas.

Give power away

Autocratic leadership is a trap. It is self-limiting. The only way to accomplish all that we’re asked to do as leaders is to empower those around us to make decisions.  In The Leadership Jump, Jimmy Long says:

Existing leaders have to realize that we are not the only ones who can drive; there are younger leaders who know how to drive better in this new and increasingly technological culture.

Long calls these emerging leaders “indigenous people.” To one who appreciates technology but is never completely comfortable with it, that phrase says it all. Call me “crosscultural.”The fact is that those from younger generations can do things in their sleep that require a lot of effort from those of us from earlier generations.

Long goes on to draw from a Harvard Business Review article by Deborah Ancona called “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader.”

As existing leaders are willing to admit that they are incomplete and need others, and are willing to share the leadership with others on the team, then together they can get extraordinary things done.

Team leadership breaks past any one leader’s limitations. But let’s get practical. How do you get started? Long suggests offering well-structured questions to draw emerging leaders into the process of discovering the answers together. Dr. Steven Sample offers another simple but radical suggestion in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership: never make a decision that could be made by someone else. In other words, continually push decisions down. You’ll accomplish a lot more while you’re in your position, and you’ll leave your mark on the next few generations of leaders.

Long again:

We actually gain power by giving it away. It is a different kind of power. Instead of it being the power of control, it is the power of relationship, the power of shared decision making, the power of blessing.

Young leaders aren’t into credit

In March and April, I did a series on young leaders. Another characteristic came to surface recently that I wanted to add to the list: young leaders don’t care who gets the credit.

You’ve heard the saying, “There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.” (Interestingly, I just looked it up and no one really knows who said that!) Well, it’s certainly true in an open source, viral  world like ours.

If you’re not interested in hierarchy and moving up the ladder, but rather in being part of a team, then ideas tend to flow more freely. If you’re not into self-promotion and defending your territory, but rather in seeing your ends successful through any means available, then you’re free to celebrate when movements ignite and move faster and farther than your reach.

Let me point out a concrete example. Wycliffe is celebrating the fact that 109 Bible translation projects were started this past year. That’s the highest number in history! Who started them? A lot of different people. In fact, the only thing I can tell you with confidence is that only a very few were started by Wycliffe. And only a handful working on the projects even know that they’re working on a Wycliffe project. They’re working for organizations like SIL, Translation Association of the Philippines and Ghana Institute for Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation. The fact is that Wycliffe doesn’t really translate Bibles. Someone came to me yesterday and pointed out that a recent CBN video claimed that Wycliffe translators were working on Luke 2 — the Christmas story — for nine languages in Tanzania, pointing out that it just wasn’t true.

I say, “Who cares?” As Paul said to the Philippians when he heard some preachers were preaching Christ from selfish motives,

So how am I to respond? I’ve decided that I really don’t care about their motives, whether mixed, bad, or indifferent. Every time one of them opens his mouth, Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on!

The important thing is that 109 translation projects were started! Let’s continue to work in a way that gives the statisticians headaches trying to figure out how to assign the credit. For instance, African nationals doing translation, trained by SIL, funded by the Orthodox Church, their finished product paid for by the Bible League and cheered on and supported by Wycliffe?

The fact is that issues of control and credit have crippled many initiatives before they ever got off the ground. God will hold many people and many organizations accountable one day for that incredible waste of resources.

Here’s my question: How can we make this happen faster? What about open source translation? What are your ideas?