The Pitfalls of Power

May 29, 2011

During the last two weeks the reputations of two powerful leaders, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, have been stained by scandal. In each instance, the scandal revolved around sexual misconduct (or at least the allegation of such, in Strauss-Kahn's case). But there are surely other ways to mar one's fitness for command: mishandling money, misconstruing one's past, and more.

Since the aforementioned news stories broke, I've read a couple of articles about the misuse of organizational power. I didn't save a copy of the first one that I read, but it addressed the way that powerful leaders are prone to excuse breaches of integrity. (My efforts to rediscover the article during the writing of this post were unsuccessful.) The second piece, "'Seduction of the Leader,'" dealt not with leaders' moral frailty but with their willingness to avoid hearing certain kinds of communication: bad news about their organizations, dissenting voices, words of caution about favored courses of action, etc.

As a leader who will likely assume a position of greater responsibility at some point in the future, I take these inputs very seriously. I am not so naïve as to believe that I'm above making any of these mistakes--or that anyone else is either, for that matter. My theological beliefs preclude such a view, and they are confirmed by the memory of undiscerning choices in my own past.

As described elsewhere on this site, I happen to have worked in Christian institutions of higher education for the last 15 years. I wish that this setting offered some sort of inoculation against lapses in integrity and other leadership miscues. But reality is clearly otherwise. I won't even bother to name the examples that loom large in my mind at this point in time.

As I reflect on my career--past, present, and future--in the light of the above, I derive some important lessons that may spare me and other Christian leaders some heartache down the road.

  • A Christian leader should refuse to make compromising choices in any of three scenarios:

    • When a choice is objectively immoral: This goes beyond the question of what is legal; it requires one to wrestle with the teachings of Scripture, both in overarching principles (e.g., the Golden Rule) and particularized precepts.

    • When a choice involves a violation of personal conscience: Sometimes a person is tempted to make a choice against which there is no clear biblical command. Nevertheless, if one cannot make that choice without a clear conscience, he or she should not proceed (Rom. 14:23).

    • When a choice could damage a leader's reputation if it were made public: I believe that this is the sense in which pastoral leaders are called to be "above reproach" (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7).

  • A Christian manager or executive needs to be sufficiently humble to listen to the input of others, whether trusted advisors, dissenters, subordinates, and stakeholders at large. Patrick Sanaghan and Larry Goldstein, the consultants who authored "'Seduction of the Leader,'" suggested some very practical ways to enact this aim.

The most sobering part about posting this blog entry is that in doing so I've erected a high standard of accountability for myself. Then again, a Christian leader needs a high standard.

Want to learn more about leadership ethics and related topics?

Click the buttons below to see relevant entries in my bibliography, SmithFile.