One famous line from the movie Braveheart comes from a confrontation between William Wallace and the other native leaders of Scotland. Wallace said, “There’s a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom. And I go to make sure that they have it.”

With position and title almost always comes power. Power is the ability to direct or influence the behavior of others. Authority, similar to power, is the perceived right to exercise power. For example, a man of physical strength has the power (the ability) to restrain someone. A police officer, on the other hand, has the authority (the assigned right) to restrain someone.

But there is another component of power to consider. While one with power and authority may be able and authorized to influence another, he or she may lack the credibility to do so—meaning that he or she lacks moral permission from the person in question to exercise influence. From a biblical view, power without credibility is illegitimate power, and authority without credibility destroys trust. Jesus possessed all power and authority. Yet, through his character and behaviors, he gained the credibility to yield power and authority legitimately. His credibility resulted from the way he used power. Ironically, by defying conventional applications of power, he gained more—certainly, Jesus is the most influential man who has ever lived, even down to this day.

Why is this discussion of a leader’s power so important? Because power is possibly the greatest asset of leadership. It provides leaders with the potential to do good or bring harm. Power allows leaders to build trust and thus gain the voluntary and legitimate permission of people to influence them, or power can be used in such a way that it undermines trust and legitimacy. “Nothing is more useful than power, nothing more frightful.”[i] Since this is true, the way a leader uses power is the truest test of his or her character. It unveils how a leader views himself and his assumptions about why his leadership exists in the first place.

Some begin to believe they have the right to spend the asset of power on themselves. This is because they assume their power is the result of who they are—a product of their own competence, efforts, or aptitudes—rather than a gift on loan from God. Consequently, power may be used by leaders to bless others or to promote self.

The Stewardship of Power

The Random House dictionary defines a steward as “a person charged with the responsibility of managing another person’s assets that have been entrusted to his or her care.” This definition reflects exactly who Jesus was in his leadership and describes his relationship to the notion of power. He understood that his work on this earth, and the power accompanying that work, were granted to him from the Father, and he viewed himself as a steward of it.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (Matthew 28:18, NIV)
(cf. John 5:36, 13:12-16; 18:11)

Pontius Pilate, by contrast, had a very different perspective about his power as a Roman governor. Jesus reminded him that no leader, no matter how great, is granted power apart from the dispensation of God:

So Pilate said to Him, “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:10–11)

In Philippians 2:5–11, the apostle Paul describes the amazing truth of God becoming man in Jesus, taking the form of a servant, and being resolved to absolute obedience to the Father. Here, the whole idea of a biblical leader’s use of title and authority is affirmed.

Paul says that Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped [i.e., “clung to,” “adhered to”], but emptied himself.” In other words, the very thing that Jesus could have used for his own advantage, he released. This does not mean he abdicated his nature as Deity. The kenosis was not the relinquishing of power. Rather, it was a statement regarding the object of Jesus’s power. He chose to spend it for our sake, not his own. It did not go away, he did not lose it, and he did not apologize for it. He was God. He knew that. Yet amazingly, the one with all right to be served by others set that entitlement aside in order to become the one serving. Never do you see Jesus use his power and authority for his own benefit. Rather, he expressed the magnanimous and moral power of power by using it for the sake of others.

Do you know leaders who are always reminding others of their title and their power? Who cling to it obsessively? Who spend it on themselves? Who feel it gives them the privilege to do what they want?

God gives power and position for the sake of his people, not for the privilege of the leader: “And David knew that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel” (2 Samuel 5:12).

The above is an excerpt from Mike’s recent book Power to Lead.

[i] Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Strous and Giroux, 1951), 3.