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Leadership Is About Giving Power Away

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The last half of the twentieth century marked a shift in the way people think about leadership. Prior to the 1980s, leadership was considered more of a personality trait than a professional skill. But in the 1980s, the idea of leadership—the ability to cast a vision for the future, to transform what is into what could be—captured our imaginations. Americans have always liked the idea of a White Knight who could ride in and deliver us from our problems. Ronald Reagan delivered us from the Evil Empire. Lee Iacocca delivered Chrysler, its shareholders, and thousands of workers from economic disaster. Fred Smith delivered us from waiting days for mail and late packages. Rudy Giuliani saved New York City from a soaring crime rate. We like people who give us hope. And, it's exhilarating to be the one who brings hope.

Moses is a guy I consider to be one of recorded history's first world-class leaders. If ever a leader qualified for pedestal placement, it was Moses. Miraculously saved from drowning, he was raised as the darling child of Egyptian aristocracy. Moses probably knew from a young age that he was a man of destiny and purpose. He eventually parted large bodies of water with his staff and acted as God's miracle broker, feeding a population larger than Manhattan every day for a really long time. It's hard for me to fault Moses for giving in to the temptation of thinking he could handle most anything by himself. A few weeks into their journey, Moses did just that. He was tempted to assume more responsibility than God intended by trying to solve everyone's problems and disputes. Moses' father-in-law helped him see the danger of letting his leadership gifts run away with him again.

This volume of responsibility, authority, and notoriety may stroke a guy's ego, but it's dangerous for everyone involved—including the leader himself. In Exodus 18:17-18, Jethro warned Moses about the impact of hoarding authority. It is important advice for every leader.

So how do leaders avoid elevating their own importance and minimizing the contribution of others? Jethro gave Moses some excellent advice about how to escape these leadership traps. Rather than putting all the power in the hands of one leader, Jethro proposed that Moses lead by giving away power and authority and equipping people to use it. He believed that God can use a lot of people to make good choices. It worked in the desert for Moses. It worked for Jesus when he gave away authority to his followers. It worked in the early church when the apostles gave power away to faithful followers. It works today when leaders release decision-making power and put it into the hands of people actually doing the work.

Booker T. Washington summed it well: "Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him and to let him know that you trust him." It might be surprising, but that's exactly what God has done for you.

God has invested gifts, abilities, and talents in every man along with the dreams and imagination to use them. He has entrusted every one of us with his work and the power to get it done—not a privileged few. Wherever we've been given responsibility—great or small—there is a leadership role to play.

Max De Pree, chairman of Herman Miller, Inc., suggests a simple self-assessment to test whether we are leading well. "The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers. Are the followers reaching their potential? Are they learning? Serving? Do they achieve the required results? Do they change with grace? Manage conflict?" In other words, are they leading themselves?

Whether you're leading at home, in the workplace, in your church, or community, you can take Jethro's advice. Read Exodus 18:19-23 and think about the following questions.

    1. What areas of responsibility has God entrusted to your leadership?
    2. What is the danger of too much success?
    3. What is the hardest part of delegating responsibility and authority to others?
    4. What responsibility and authority do you need to give away? How will people need to be equipped to handle that responsibility?
    5. Consider Jethro's warning. Could you be wearing yourself and others out if you fail to give away power?

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(Adapted from What God Does When Men Lead)

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