How should a leader exert power?

In the church, as in any organization, leaders exert power to achieve objectives. Power struggles seem to be one of the most common causes of dissension in the church. Such dissension almost always leads to ill-health and sometimes to decline. The way in which a leader uses his available power is one of the keys to organizational health.

There are two types of power available to the leaders of any organization: personal power and institutional power. Many church leaders have not learned the cost of depending on personal power nor the benefits of leaning on institutional power. 

Personal power is always tied to the leader and comes in several forms:

  1. Expert: A leader’s knowledge of a particular subject is used to convince others that he knows best and therefore his opinion is superior.
  2. Position: A leader presumes his position carries the ultimate, often unilateral, authority for all decision-making.
  3. Reward: What the leader can do for the employee or member of the organization is used to gain compliance.
  4. Coercive: What the leader can do to the employee or member of the organization is used to instill fear and thus gain compliance.
  5. Charismatic: A leader’s personal ability to win others over with strong and compelling rhetoric is the basis for gaining follower-ship.

Institutional power is tied to the organization and is based on factors agreed-upon by all stakeholders:

  1. Goals: These are the mutually-agreed-upon objectives that can help drive decisions and priorities on a day-to-day basis.
  2. Values: When clearly stated and taught to every member of the organization, these are the driving principles that affect the organizational culture and the behaviors of its members.
  3. Systems: These are processes that have proven themselves to provide effective and efficient outputs for a given set of inputs.
  4. Structures: A well-defined leadership and decision-making structure that allows for a set of checks-and-balances is essential to organizational health. The borrowed perception of others is key to good decision-making.
  5. Policies: These are the “controls” that keep an organization from floundering by having a written set of agreements for handling organizational dynamics.

There are times when personal power is appropriate and needed. This might be in a crisis situation or when there is not consensus among the broader leadership. But when a leader can lean on institutional power over personal power, there will be much less ambivalence and likely less resistance.

Institutional power gains its strength through the process of pre-determined, mutual agreement. If these elements are not present or are not relevant in an organization, leaders should develop or strengthen them.

If a leader must always exert personal power, his leadership energy and effectiveness will eventually run out.

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