Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Leadership

How Does a Leader Come to Power?

In his book, The Socrates Express, Eric Weiner shares a sentence that, as he put it, is so plump with meaning it stops one cold. The kind of sentence that comes once or twice in a lifetime. Here it is—“Our culture has generally tended to solve its problems without experiencing its questions.” Hmmm…

Like philosophy, theology is about raising questions, questions that often transcend our own. Questions that challenge assumptions like how a leader comes to power. Do leaders really come to power? We assume so. Leaders chase power with fierce ambition and inordinate drive. Coming to power usually begins by gaining the right connections, accumulating the right amount of capital, and developing the kind of charisma that fills a room. Coming to power is often connected to proven performance and making promises. In some cases, it requires manipulation, deceit, expressing resentments, and using coercion.

But is this really true? Aren’t we asking the wrong question? Shouldn’t we be asking—”How does power come to a leader?” Shouldn’t this be the question we experience—and answer?

It is God who has the power. He alone has the right to work everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Eph 1:11). And he does. Nothing he conceives and wills to do is beyond His power to accomplish. To him, and him alone belongs all might and all power, and he shares it with whom he wills (Jer 27:5). It is his to give and his to take. He lifts one up and puts another down. History tells us this. And when God empowers a leader, one is enabled to do anything through God who gives the strength (Phil 4:8). Gaining a taste of such power, one is moved to give glory to the one who can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine (Eph 3:20).

But do we really believe this today? In the thinning of our convictions, it seems we have become more enamored with the power of men and our power to decide. You would think our complete well-being depends upon our next election. We have forgotten that unless power comes from God, leaders (i.e. presidents, generals, corporate heads, pastors) are so much “decorated irrelevance.” Nebuchadnezzar discovered this before Daniel. Before Pilate, the one who possessed the full imperium, Jesus removed any illusions of grandeur: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11).

Any rule leaders have is a derivative extension of divine rule, received to carry out God’s purposes. Purposes which in line with God are counterintuitive, for true power is for self-emptying—not self-expanding. It is the power to serve–not push one’s weight around; the power to listen–not to silence; the power to give honor—not grandstand. It is perfected in weakness—not by climbing up the ladder. It is rooted in the life of Jesus and not in ourselves.

Out of his emptying at the cross, Jesus dethroned the world’s kingdoms and established his own. While the cross was the symbol of Caesar’s naked might—it became a symbol of God’s naked love (Wright). The essence of power that God desires to share with us.

(this and future posts are working excerpts from my upcoming book, Reframing Leadership: A Theological Evaluation of Contemporary Leadership Models)

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