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Power to influence built on trust

Posted on July 13, 2015 in: Articles

When we think and speak of the power to lead, we often focus on what is known as “formal power” or “positional power.” 

There’s no doubt that kind of power plays a defining role in many of our relationships, especially those at work. But it’s also true that among the various ways we can exercise power, “formal” or “positional” power is a weak one. And it’s growing weaker by the day in our culture, where we insist on the right to withhold respect and trust until the other person has demonstrated to us that they are worthy of such things -- no matter what their position or title.

My grandparents would never have challenged a priest about anything — even if the issue was not about faith or morals and in their heart of hearts they were absolutely convinced he was wrong. 

In my parents’ day things had not changed much. They sent us off to school with an explicit mandate to never criticize a priest or woman religious no matter what. Such behavior was always and everywhere inexcusable, and often led to severe punishment. 

This unflinching respect for positional power extended well beyond clergy and religious to embrace people in political office, prominent members of the community, captains of industry and anyone in any position of authority. 

We could disagree with them, of course. Sometimes that simply couldn’t be helped. But those times should be rare. And when they happened, we best kept them to ourselves. 

However, somewhere in the larger mix of turbulent cultural forces, respect for and compliance with those in formal positions of authority pretty much dissolved. Today circumstances often require us to comply with the directives of others in authority. We concede the occasional necessity. But we no longer believe that it’s the right thing to do. 

Instead, we look for our own heroes, our own role models, our own mentors. We give them great prominence and power to shape our lives. Meanwhile, we give only minimal regard for the prerogatives of those with positional power — unless we also happen to trust and respect them. 

In today’s culture great tolls are paid wherever positional power is high and trust is low. Often these are difficult to measure. But we have a clear example in our own church, illustrated by the role that trust plays in parishioners’ willingness to express their stewardship convictions when the collection basket is passed around. 

In Why Catholics Don’t Give … And What Can Be Done About It author Charles E. Zech says, “trustworthiness is a critical element across the board in the relationship between a pastor and his parishioners. This is especially true when it comes to money.” He cites a study that showed that parishioners who had high trust in their parish leadership’s financial decisions gave an average of $1,042 a year – 51% more than those who had low trust. 

The good news is that nearly two-thirds of Catholic parishioners he surveyed placed a high level of trust in their parish leadership. The not-so-good news: that was the lowest level of any Christian denomination included in the study. 

Trust is a unique thing in the material world because it has two seemingly opposite properties: 

  • It is the grease that lubricates fast, clear, synergistic interaction between people, making cooperation possible; and
  • It is the glue that holds organizations together so that many people can work together on the same mission.

Effective leaders consciously try to build trust with both their superiors and their subordinates. Here are a few tips to help you do the same: 

  • Under-promise and over-deliver. Promises are easy. But keeping them is critical. Jesus made that very point in the parable of two sons. Check it out in Mat. 21:28-31.
  • Uncover expectations. The person or persons who hired you and the person or persons who work for you have one thing in common: expectations. They are probably very different — except they create frameworks for judging your trustworthiness. Know what the tests are and you can either try to pass them or dissuade people of them. Generally you’ll have to do some of both. 
  • Strive for consistency.Nothing scares people and undermines trust like the uncertainty that grows out of erratic behavior and knowledge. Continually develop a healthy mindset and a robust skillset so people are comfortable predicting that you will be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.


There is, of course, always room for improvement — and as it occurs, it should reward you with progressively more influence, the power with lasting consequences. Godspeed.

Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

Copyright © 2012 Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute, 208 E. North St., Durand, IL 61024. Any part of this newsletter may be reproduced so long as there is full attribution, our web site is listed, and any electronic reproduction includes a link to our site: http://www.yeshualeader.com.

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