Last night we popped out to watch ‘Doubt; a Parable at the Festival theatre. A 5 star performance from 4 players who worked hard to produce a memorable experience.
It came at a time when I’ve been reflecting on Authority and Power. The play was all about the interplay of these two themes; on the one hand the priest, part of the rigid patriarchal hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and on the other, the principal of the school, in the same hierarchy but at a much lower level. He had the authority, but she the power, or did she? Which is where the doubt comes in, and the audience leaves the theatre wondering.
My reflections on the nature of authority and power arise from my training and troubleshooting in charities and churches over the last 25 years. In my training sessions it’s always been a key element of my material. On the one hand there is the authority vested in the trustees who are accountable to the regulator and other bodies; on the other hand the executive, whose accountability, If there is such, often lies elsewhere. My aim being to highlight the dangers and propose solid, safe pathways to protect all the parties from the difficulties that might arise on their journey together. Our present prime minister, despite being a classics scholar clearly lacks understanding in this area; he had the authority to sack Dominic Cummings, but he failed to think through Dominic’s power in the situation. I have authority in my home, but Millie is very clear that if I don’t walk her in the next ten minutes our lounge carpet will never be the same.
Returning to my work with charities, whenever I was drawn into help with issues that had cropped up, the chances were that there was a failure to understand the dynamics of the authority and power structures in the organisation. The brutal and often unrecognised truth is that an individual or a group may have the authority, but they cannot move or implement decisions without the power. Generally power is earned and can be found at different levels.
Too often trustee boards are emasculated by powerful executive individuals or teams. This can work for many years, but if power is exercised wrongly, without controls and accountability, a day of reckoning will come, and the fallout can be disastrous. A board unused to exercising power and suddenly having to make tough decisions can find life difficult. The school principal in Doubt exercised her power by telling lies, ‘I departed from God to achieve the right result’, she said. I’ve experienced this myself a few times in naked demonstrations of power with accountability only in name.
Someone stole a significant sum of money from me a few years back. The police initially saw it as an open and shut case. Sadly, for a number of reasons, they lacked the power to mount a successful prosecution, so their authority failed. I’ve seen too many situations go bad because those who had the authority lacked the power to do what they needed to do in a timely manner.
What then is the answer? The five golden threads of Collaboration, Mutuality, Accountability, Honesty, Transparency; all must be a part of the process. Take time to understand the implications of any mismatch in your situation. Listen, really listen, to others as well as to God. (When I’m discussing these issues with church leaders and trustees I often find space to ask, ‘who are you accountable to?’ Too often I get the response, ‘I’m accountable to God’. When I hear this, I just know there’s trouble ahead.) I leave you with two questions: if you have authority in a situation, do you have the power? If you have the power, do you have the authority? Please respond if you have thoughts or comments on this.
I think we need one of John Birch’s prayers to end on
Lord, We pray for our leaders locally and nationally
With difficult decisions to make
Affecting the lives of so many.
May they be guided not by any personal agenda, but work
For the common good of all.
That this world might be led to a better place, where trust and honesty
Are the values demonstrated in those we choose to lead us.