It’s Time to Build a New Source of Power

Dr. Tim Foster - 7 March 2022

Leaders need power to get stuff done. But the forms of power on which church leaders have relied are eroding. Leaders need to cultivate new bases of power. While referent power is attractive it is not easy to develop. However, another form of power is available that will take effort to cultivate, but is highly effective.

Have you ever struggled to get people on board with your vision or to support your strategic direction? Have people not been persuaded by your latest change initiative? Or perhaps you are struggling to exert influence over your volunteers or staff team?

These are all issues of power. While power can be misused and abused, we need it if we are going to influence people and reshape organisations. But a key reason many leaders, especially church leaders, struggle to gain traction is because their power bases are disappearing.

A useful framework for understanding power is the French and Raven (1959) Bases of Power model. Broadly speaking the model divides power into two types – Positional and Personal – with a total of five power sources. The model has since been developed and expanded by others and I find the following version helpful.

Take a look at this list. What sources of power do you use? Which do you think are most effective? Which are the least effective?

Many ministers rely on one particular form of power – their expertise. Once-upon-a-time legitimate power held sway, and ministers were acknowledged and respected in the community at large and in their churches. But sixty years of cultural change have marginalised church leaders and diminished their credibility. As legitimate power diminished, most fall back on their knowledge of the Bible, worship, and church growth to cultivate the expert base of power. As far as bases of power go, this one isn’t too bad. But, more recent changes are now eroding the expert power base as well.

The expert power traditionally held by ministers s quite unusual. The gap between their knowledge and that of others (‘laity’) in the organisation s immense. In this respect the situation is closer to a teacher/student dynamic, than, for example, to a team of nurses working in a hospital where the head nurse has just a little more nursing experience than other team member, and perhaps some managerial expertise. This is probably why many church leaders are more comfortable in the pastor and teacher roles rather than in a leadership role.

However, the big challenge is that in the internet age knowledge has been radically democratised, shifting authority to the individual. Not only can a congregation member check out a commentary during a sermon, but they may well find a group on the internet that aligns with their own particular views and, ignoring your input, be shaped by an online preacher with whom they identify more strongly. This means that the expert power base that ministers usually draw from is being significantly diminished.

I noticed this dynamic during the most recent Experiential Leadership Through Sailing course that Ridley ran in Pittwater last November. At least half the students reflected that they were leading a sailing activity where they had no more expertise in sailing than the other crew members. This meant that they could not lead from a base of expert power, which was a challenging new experience for them. The nature and dynamics of their leadership had to change if they were going to lead the team through the activity without relying on their expertise. Some managed this well, finding alternative bases from which to lead, while others really struggled.

This experience highlights an issue that all leaders face. One response is to become more authoritarian, drawing on some form of positional power. But those sources of power on the left in the diagram are regarded as weak, causing resentment and conflict. We need to cultivate alternative personal bases of power.

If you look at the above diagram, again, you will see that there are other bases of power on which you can rely. They may not be places where you sit most naturally, but a key growth area for many leaders is to work hard and be very deliberate about developing other power sources.

Referent power is great, but not everyone has the charisma or force of personality that it demands. I suggest that, for many, the best source of power is connection power. This is established through intentionally building networks where you can harness information, partnerships and relational capital. Through connections you can gain access to resources, patronage and expert knowledge. Investing in relationships should not be a transactional exercise to cynically build power. But building stronger connections, growing your networks and harnessing sources of information will give you more to work with.