Does Power Corrupt?
Insights on stewarding power well
In 1887,an imposing looking man named John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, the first Baron Acton (1834-1902) penned words so memorable that they have become part of American thought and leadership culture. Lord Acton wrote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton observed something very real, but drew the wrong conclusion. It is important for followers of Jesus to understand why. The problem with Lord Acton’s statement is that he made power the cause of corruption. It is not. God has absolute power and is not corrupt. We can all point to people who wield great power yet do so in an uncorrupt manner. Besides, corruption does not require absolute power. The world is full of people with a relatively small amount of power who are amazingly corrupt. What happens to us when we allow Lord Acton’s perspective on power in shaping our organizational culture? First, it causes us to view power in an adversarial manner, when God would have us treat it as a gift from him. Second, Lord Acton’s viewpoint tends to make us treat power as an object, a commodity that can be owned, held, bought, sold, bartered, lost, gained or traded. This in turn promotes materialism, and the worship of power and money — the visible expression of power. In organizations or churches where Lord Acton’s statement shapes the organizational culture, I usually find lots of committees, sub-committees and Robert’s Rules. I see lots of committee reports and agendas that are primarily oriented in the past. Often these boards are comprised of people who are there because they represent some constituency instead of being chosen individually for their talent, character, commitment to the organization, humility and teamwork. Terms of office are often so short that the person barely learns their duties before they are rotated out and someone else fills their slot. In these organizations it appears that power cannot be monopolized, but it may be hard to move forward. At some point, talented leaders disengage, become passive or even leave the organization or church. When the system breaks down far enough, people work around it and ironically can gain too much unaccountable power.
I often ask Christ-centered boards: “How much of Jesus’ power and support would you like to have flowing through this church or organization?” After some initial hesitation and making sure this is not a trick question, the answer is almost always either “all that we can have,” or “100 percent.” No one wants to operate on only 25 percent of the effectiveness they could have. Yet, our interpretation of Lord Acton leads us to make sure power can’t really be powerful. This is our human culture. Scripture shows us God’s cultural view of power. Just as there is the stewardship of money and resources, the Bible describes the stewardship of power. The thread of understanding, running throughout the Bible allows us to distill the following principles: 1. God doesn’t just have power, he is power . 2. God is good, and he views his power as good. 3. God’s power can be dangerous (not corrupt) . 4. God puts his power under control, making it safe power. In Job 38 through 39, God provides a long monologue for Job, illustrating power with control. My favorite is Job 38:8–11: “Who shut up the sea behind closed doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’”? No one can hold God accountable, but God gives assurances to us that provide safety in our relationship with him. Stewardship of power is all about receiving large amounts of power and passing that power along to others while placing the use of the power under enough control to make it safe power. Great governance is nothing more (or less) than the stewardship of power. It is the starting point, the heart and soul of a great board, effective leadership and a happy and fruitful organization.
Dr. Randal Dick will teach a session on board leadership during a Christian Nonprofit Leadership Academy course entitled “CCNL Leadership” for The Outcomes Conference, CLA Dallas 2016, April 19–21, 2016. (OutcomesConference.org)