Holding Power Responsibly

It would seem we have lost all sight of how to hold power responsibly.  From board rooms to political office to religious and spiritual leaders, there seem to be at least one hundred bad examples to every good example. That assessment may be overly optimistic.

Early in my ordained ministry I found myself as part of what is called the Independent Sacramental Movement, or ISM. Less than two years after we formed The Universal Anglican Church, we elected to disassociate ourselves from the ISM because in our experience the leadership of that rather nebulous group had a very unhealthy relationship to power and little understanding of how to exercise it effectively or responsibly. That may be in part due to the fact that many ISM clergy were originally Roman Catholic laity and the Catholic Church is hardly known for responsible exercise of power or for being willing to allow much power to trickle down to the laity. When people who have never been allowed to exercise power in leadership roles suddenly find themselves in leadership, excesses are bound to occur. That problem isn’t unique to the ISM, however. The institutional Church is full of tyrants, small-minded bigots who seem to enjoy making the lives of those under their charge a living hell.

It’s not just religious leaders, however. I have heard countless stories from people who work for supervisors who have no idea how to respect the dignity of every human being, no idea how to ask someone to do something rather than demand compliance on the first request. Lo, those many years ago when I was twenty-six years old I worked a second job at a sub and ice cream place in Nashua, NH. The manager of the store always asked people to do what he needed them to do and never failed to thank them after they complied. He was a very likable guy and taught me a valuable lesson that would serve me well later when I was in supervisory positions. Somewhere between then and now we seem to have lost sight of basic human kindness. I can’t tell you how many times I have been in some retail store or other and seen young managers dress down their employees in front of customers. It’s especially egregious when the manager is twenty something and the employee is twice their age – and when that’s the case, the manager and their district manager get to hear from me about respecting elders.

Everyone in positions of power needs to understand that their power can be taken away in the blink of an eye. Given the spiritual law of impermanence, I can guarantee your authority isn’t going to last forever. The old adage that we should be kind to the people we pass on our way up because we will see them again on the way down is an absolute truth. People who exercise authority responsibly tend to hold on to it longer, and their eventual surrender of power is much less eventful than those who must have their power taken from them due to misconduct. Dictators tend to be displaced violently and seldom survive the experience.

One of the most essential considerations for those of us in power is the constant re-evaluation of rules. Hopefully most rules were created for a reason, but rules carry on even after the reason has passed. If you go into a medical imaging department that claims that your digital cell phone interferes with their digital equipment, you need to know that simply isn’t true. Decades ago when everything was analog there was the potential for interference, but those days are long past. Departments that still display those signs either don’t have the courage to let you know it’s rude to talk on your phone during registration and so prohibit phone use while you are being helped, or they aren’t interested in being customer friendly and so hang onto old rules that no longer have reasons. In any event, there are plenty of medical imaging providers in town for you to choose from. For my part, I prefer to patronize businesses that treat me like an adult.

We need to do a better job teaching young people about leadership and power so that when they get some for themselves they hang onto  it for more than a few weeks. Those lessons begin in the home in the way that parents exercise their power. “Because I said so” is never an adequate explanation, nor is “because I’m the Mommy, that’s why.” In schools, we need to start teaching leadership and people skills to all students because they all need it. In religious and spiritual settings, we need to clearly demonstrate what it means to be compassionate at all times. I dream of a world where we all walk away from every personal encounter feeling like whole people, even when everything doesn’t turn out the way we had hoped.

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