There are two important, yet paradoxical themes in leadership literature. One says that every person in the organization has value and has something to contribute to its success. In this regard leaders should treat followers with respect, encouragement, and even love. The other theme says organizations should have a hierarchy that grants some people authority over others. Here, leaders have a higher responsibility and followers need to … follow.
This poses a bit of a paradox. How does a leader view and treat followers (and other leaders) as equals yet maintain the hierarchical authority structure needed to run the organization?
Interestingly, both of these concepts have Biblical foundations. Paul’s letter to Christ followers in Galatia in about 50 A.D. is a masterful defense of justification by faith (that topic is for another discussion), and also includes the then-radical idea that in God’s eyes all people are equal. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave not free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). To get a feel for the radical nature of this statement, transport your thinking back 50 or more years in U.S. history. There were whites who said, “Black? White? Yellow? Red? It doesn’t matter. We’re all God’s people!” That was radical thinking at that time. Today, imagine a prominent Muslim imam saying, “Christians? Jews? Muslims? It doesn’t matter. We’re all God’s people.” Quite radical.
That’s the kind of thinking change that Paul encouraged 2000 years ago and in today’s postmodern world this idea is actually quite comfortable to most people. Most young people today embrace the concept of equality, mutual respect, and valuing one another.
The concept of positional and hierarchical authority also has Biblical foundations. Among the early church history records is a short but important story in which leaders struggled with the massive growth of the church and addressing people’s needs. The leaders recognized the problem but chose not to handle it themselves. They said, “We cannot ignore our duties to take care of this problem.” So they granted responsibility and authority to seven others to fix the problem. The plan was effective and the church continued to grow at a fantastic rate (Acts 1:1-6).
For many people, what’s uncomfortable in that story is that the leaders deliberately chose not to get involved. Their actual recorded words are, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables” (Acts 1:2). They were not being disrespectful of the needs of these people. They recognized their first responsibility as the study and preaching of scripture. So what they did was to exercise their authority and create a hierarchical structure to solve the problem. Isn’t this antithetical to the idea of equality and respect above? Shouldn’t they have been willing to take care of the widows and orphans of the community? Willing to? Yes. Should they have done it? No.
This story beautifully resolves the authority paradox (equality versus authority). The early church leaders, by implementing their plan to appoint seven new leaders to care for the needy (exercise of authority), were actually recognizing equality and empowering the ability of those seven. They were fully aware of their own calling and responsibilities and were ready to help others live out their calling and responsibility.
This point is critical, so I will state it again. Leaders effectively respect and treat others as equals by using their authority to empowering them, often through hierarchical structures, to use their own gifts to contribute to the organization.
I cannot leave this point, though, without calling out leaders who mess this principle up far too easily and far too often. Leaders destroy this beautiful dance of equality and authority in a number of ways, but most often by not fully granting followers with the authority needed to carry out their responsibility. Leaders have a tendency to hand out jobs, but through second-guessing and decision reversing, limit their authority.
When you give followers responsibility, give them an equal level of authority! Sure, sometimes a decision crosses your desk that you must really reverse. However, part of the skill in leading is knowing just how much each follower can handle and then granting a little bit more authority than that level. This becomes a training ground. Your budding leadership stars will shine and you will be able to give them more authority.
The authority paradox is not really a paradox at all. If properly executed, leadership integrates equality and authority to realize the greatest potential of the individuals and of the organization.
Note: Inspiration for this article comes from the article “God’s Seven Purposes for Authority” by Dr. S. M. Davis in Home School Enrichment, July/August, 2001, issue 52.