In an effort to build relationships between a particular local non-profit and the church in which I worked, I asked the Executive Director and her Senior Project Manager to meet the Senior Pastor and Executive Pastor. When Karen and Marsha, both women, walked into the room with me, we encountered the two pastors, both men, who were sitting in chairs with their arms behind their heads, legs crossed, leaning back in their chairs. They eventually got up to shake hands with the two non-profit leaders, and then sat back down in their original stance. Later when I spoke with Karen and Marsha about how they felt about the conversation, Marsha mentioned the power play by the two pastors. I was a bit confounded as I thought the two men were simply relaxed in meeting them. But as Marsha continued, she helped me recognize the open posture non-verbally indicated who was in charge, and if it had been two men walking into the room, most likely the two pastors would not have had the same posture. The situation was also compounded by the fact that both Karen and Marsha are African-American and the two pastors are Caucasian. While I believe I have a keen sense of interpersonal dynamics, particularly in small groups, I was surprised by my lack of attentiveness to something that Marsha picked up on right away.
I recognize the scenario above is not as simple as one group “powering” over another, as there are many layers when it comes to race, gender, and even personality differences. However, that experience is a reflection of what MaryKate Morse addresses in her book Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space and Influence. How people use space, both verbally and nonverbally, indicates how they view and use their power along with their influence. In this same church, about the same time as the conversation, a remodel was going on whereby the Senior Pastor’s new office was now at the end of the hallway, the largest room and furthest away from the Receptionist Desk where any one who wanted to speak with the pastor would have to pass through. While the rationale was to give the pastor privacy, it also communicated his importance and elitism in his inaccessibility. When it was brought to the pastor’s attention by some elders what this kind of space non-verbally suggested, he was defensive and lacked any kind of awareness. Interestingly, while he certainly recognized the value of the power he held in his position, he was unaware of how pervasive it was, even to a fault.
It is this awareness that I found fascinating in Morse’s book. She articulates the “attentive awareness” that requires taking responsibility with what you recognize about one’s own use of power. Power itself is not positive or negative (as money can also be). Rather, it is how it is used. In fact, Morse counter-intuitively states “powerlessness is not a virtue; rather, using power to help the powerless is.” We are not to abdicate our power as an indicator that we’re a servant-leader. Power is something given to us, as the sphere of our influence is. Our response and use of that power and influence reflects whether we are awakened to what God calls us to do and be as leaders.
In addition to individual awareness, a group that begins the conversation around power, influence, and space opens up the opportunity to see more clearly what dynamics are at play. Morse highlights this synergy towards an authentic way of offering change: “Awareness triggers a group’s capacity to be Christlike.” That first step of being willing to step in the messiness of hard conversations, raw emotions, misunderstandings, and common places in conversations brings about the capacity to effectively move in a direction together. Power done in authenticity provides the fuel to sustain the change.
The aforementioned non-profit started that conversation on power long before the Executive Director and Senior Project Manager met with the two pastors. Perhaps that’s why Marsha so quickly picked up on the power play. Their group conversations around power stirred up old history, forced healthy responses of honesty, required forgiveness and reconciliation, and provided profound healing. That’s when I realized that the authentic leadership Morse captures truly is about “leadership that catalyzes a group toward deep change and moves its members in positive, energizing directions – involved the group acting together.” My hope is to provide the same kind of conversations wherever I might find my place of power and influence as I sit in the space that I live.