If you’re a leader, you have soft power.
You might never have thought about it but you do. Have you thought about the implications of this?
What is soft power? Here’s a working definition to get us started.
The power that comes from relationship and trust, or from influence and popularity rather than from formal authority.
It can be exercised wholly positively, but has the disadvantage of not being very transparent. If people do what you say just because they like and trust you, that’s soft power.
In my book, Powerful Leaders?, I explore how soft power and influence work in Christian leadership. The healthy use of authority and power is a vital thing to help people flourish, so when it goes wrong, it can be very damaging. Sadly, the most likely place for it to go wrong is in the soft power and influence that Christian leaders often wield unwittingly. This is partly because we don’t think about it very much, and may even be unaware that we possess it.
When leaders start to go off-track, I don’t believe it is badly motivated. At least, not usually. Rather, it is when we try to get some good end for the gospel or for the church but do so by manipulative or coercive means. We think we are doing Jesus’ work, but we aren’t doing it Jesus’ way. As soon as we act in ways that aren’t in the light, it doesn’t matter how good the outcomes are, the work isn’t of God. Ends do not justify means in his kingdom.
I wrote my book to shine a light on the use of soft power and influence with the aim of helping leaders and churches to understand how it works, and to encourage them to embrace a healthy use of authority. However, perhaps the most challenging issue isn’t the leadership practice of individual leaders or leaders within organisations, but the cultures and tribes they serve.
Cultures can be nebulous things.
They generally have defining narratives that have built up over time, and are designed to promote group attitudes, codes, behaviours, and a sense of identity and mission. But like a puff of smoke, they are hard to get hold of. Very often, cultures possess no single individual or group that is tasked with responsibility for laying out the cultural narrative and attendant features. Nevertheless, everyone thinks and acts in line with the narrative. They do this either because they agree with it and have internalised it or they self-censor in order to stay in the group.
Ironically perhaps, while cultures can be hard to define, they can encourage rigorous conformity. It may not be explicitly communicated, but everyone knows who is at the top table, even if they don’t have titles and positions. Everyone knows the narrative you have to embrace to get in, and to remain in. Cultures create a high degree of cohesiveness around the narrative, even though it may be very unclear who is responsible for it. In fact, if you no longer agree with the narrative, you might well find yourself automatically placed outside the culture.
This leads to the following unfortunate result . . .
Cultures find it very hard to examine whether power and influence are being exercised in a healthy way. Those on the inside find it almost impossible, since they risk stepping outside invisible boundaries, while those on the outside don’t possess the power and influence to challenge those who wield real power. As a consequence, cultures easily become echo chambers that are impervious to evaluation and review.
This is even more the case when they become powerful enough to undergird institutions, legacies, salaries and pensions. At that point—and this is often true of large financial institutions that are essential to an economy (like banks)—they can be deemed too important to be allowed to fail. When this happens, wilful blindness to the use and abuse of power can set in. When some catastrophe occurs, everyone can claim plausible deniability because nobody was actually responsible. And surely you can’t blame the culture as a whole, because that would be to tarnish a lot of innocent people. It’s worth remembering that these people do a lot of good, and by failing to distinguish them from the guilty, their reputations would be harmed.
For all these reasons, it can be extremely difficult to spot when a culture has turned into a self-perpetuating echo chamber.
FACED WITH A LEADER WHO FALLS
When a public leader sins and falls, we tend to respond in one of the following two ways.
We lay all the blame on the individual (sometimes in an effort to exonerate the culture).
We blame the entire culture for enabling the sins of the individual.
I believe we need to be more nuanced. Did the culture have active safeguarding measures in place against the potential for leadership abuses? Or was it inactive and immune to regular review, thereby creating the possibility for abuse through blindness and omission?
If the latter . . .
While the culture may not have been one that actively enabled abusive behaviour to occur, it was prone to manipulation because it wasn't actively discouraging abusive behaviour.
Are there features of the culture that might have attracted and enabled bad leaders?
Is there a direct relationship between the culture and the bad leader? Perhaps because they have created it or hold an unquestionable position within it?
A culture that is more likely to use its soft power and influence wisely is one that . . .
Acknowledges openly that it has soft power.
Regularly takes steps to consider how it can ensure spiritual healthiness and transparency with regards to leadership and finance.
Is open to constructive criticism and evaluation from ‘critical friends’ who are outside the organisation.
I normally expect to find this in cultures that display the following characteristics. In these cultures, leaders . . .
Are humble and prayerful, not given to self-congratulation.
Value the spiritual formation of leaders.
Value character and integrity rather than mere competency.
Have no desire to be Big Leaders.
Hardly know what a platform is, let alone possess the desire to have a large one.
So, here are a few questions for reflection this week. As you consider the culture that surrounds you, mull these questions over, and as you do so, ask the Lord to guide your reflections and your prayers.
How would you describe the church/organisational culture of which you are a member?
What is your role, and are you ever in danger of using soft power inappropriately? How would you know?
What accountability do you have so that you can consider the culture you’re in and respond with humility and wisdom?
How spiritually healthy is the organisational culture of your church? Do you all act with humility and grace towards each other? If not, what actions do you need to take personally to address this?
1. This definition is based on ideas in my most recent book, Powerful Leaders? - How Christian Leadership Goes Wrong and How to Prevent It. Inter-Varsity Press. 2022.