Kings. Power. Leadership.
Power is high in the hierarchy of needs in most animals, human beings included, as it relates to survival. Thus, the potential for abuse can be very seductive.
The reading from Samuel and the gospel reading from John illustrate two very different models of power.
The first model, command and control is well illustrated in the story of King David and Bathsheba.
The books of Samuel are a narrative that describes the transition of the people of God from the rule of judges to the rule of the kings, with attention to the rights, duties and restriction of the kings. It portrays the radical difference between the absolute right of the king in the ancient Near East and the king of Israel who was subject to a higher power, and to the rule of law and morality upheld by the prophets. Scripture tells us that the king in Israel could not do just anything that he pleased.
King David has been very successful in his career; he has conquered Jerusalem and made it his administrative and religious centre, he liberated Israel from Philistine domination and created an empire. It’s in his personal life that another side of his character is revealed. The story today is about his acts of adultery and murder. He sees Bathsheba bathing and, struck by her beauty, sends his messengers to get her. He had sex with her. He saw her, he wanted her, and he took her.
We won’t even get into the issue of consent here because that’s another whole sermon.
When Bathsheba told him that she was pregnant, King David contrived to deceive her husband Uriah to believe it was his child, and when that didn’t work, he simply had him killed in battle.
This is the first of many mistakes that David makes in his personal life and he and his family pay dearly. Incest, rape, betrayal. A fascinating read — it would make a great Netflix series. In fairness to David, he does reconcile himself with God at the end through confession, repentance and surrender.
But as a species we haven’t moved very far in the way power is used. The command and control model seems to be the default setting still today and we can call to mind any number of instances in the news we hear and read in our favourite news feed.
What needs to change?
The rapid advances in neuroscience are literally exploding our understanding of how our brains work and influence our behaviours. Studies in the ways that power affects our brains are going on all over the world and what they tell us includes the fact that having power over others — defined as controlling resources that others want, need or fear — has profound effects on our mind and brain. When power is unconstrained by democratic controls or good systems of governance, then those in power may show undesirable distortions in judgment, emotions, cognition and behaviour as a result of its drug-like effects on the brain. One experiment showed a change in “mirror neurons,” that part of the brain that is able to see the pain or suffering in others, gradually turns off.
We lose our capacity for empathy.
The story of King David is a warning.
Moving to the Gospel of John we hear: “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
Jesus knew that this would be dangerous and got out of town. It’s exactly NOT the kind of power that Jesus is teaching. Symbolism is the key to understanding this gospel — made clear by the self-symbolism of God in the Word made flesh. Scripture reads, “…when the people saw the sign he had done…” John always refers to the “sign” to remind us that the story isn’t literal.
What kind of power is this that can feed the multitudes or appear from nowhere to arrive on the boat? Jesus is modelling a power that comes from God. In modern secular language the words might be “tapping into the potential of the quantum universe.” It manifests more like empowerment from within rather than power over others.
Let’s look at some leaders in business and social movements who employ what neuroscience is teaching us about this kind of power.
Rasmus Hougaard is the founder of The Potential Project, consultants who provide mindfulness-based management training. He’s also coauthor of a two-year research study into the effects of leadership style on the engagement and productivity of employees. Out of the research three major qualities were identified in leaders of organizations with high levels of employee satisfaction and productivity. They are: mindfulness, selflessness and compassion.
Mindfulness is necessary, he says, in an environment of constant distraction. A leader has to be able to focus and be engaged for extended periods of time. This also requires a high level of self-awareness, emotional self-regulation and presence in relationships.
Selflessness is motivation for the long term good of the organization and the people who work in it rather than for short term gain and glorification of self.
Compassion is the behaviour that follows empathy. This means putting people and their needs and desires at the centre of their strategy.
As one executive who was interviewed said, it takes constant vigilance to keep his ego in check, so he doesn’t lose his perspective.
Sue Langley, CEO of The Langley Group Institute is a speaker, trainer, researcher and leading advisor on the practical workplace applications of neuroscience, emotional intelligence and positive psychology.
Her work focusses on a positive strength-based model of leadership instead of the fear-based evaluation model. Neuroscience is proving what we’ve known in stories for millennia; that people function at a high level when they feel secure, respected and valued as well as connected with others to achieve a common goal.
Margaret Wheatley, activist and author, says in the introduction to her latest book:
“What this world needs is leaders… who put service over self, who can be steadfast through crisis and through failures, who want to stay present and make a difference to the people, situations and causes they care about.”
In the broader area of political and organizational policy, according to British writer on alternative economic and social futures, James Robertson, a shift to a more sustainable model will involve:
“…a shift away from economic growth towards human development; away from quantitative towards qualitative values and goals; away from the impersonal and organizational towards the personal and interpersonal; and away from the earning and spending of money towards the meeting of real human needs and aspirations.
…We shall recognize that survival and self-realization alike require us to act as what we really are — integral parts of an ecosystem much larger, more complex, and more powerful than ourselves.”
Ok, not quite walking on water, but getting closer.
These models of leadership are not about an “other,” a person we can point to and say, “you’re in power so you have the responsibility.” These are stories about us, each of us as individuals and where we have responsibility for our own behaviour and growth.
Let us pray.
Look into the hollows of your hands and ask what wants to be gathered there,
what abundance waits among the scraps that come to you,
what feast will offer itself from the fragments that remain.
Rasmus Hougaard and Jaqueline Carter, The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results, 2018.
Sue Langley, http://langleygroupinstitute.com
Jan Richardson, The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief, 2016.
James Robertson, Beyond the Dependency Culture: People, Power and Responsibility. 1998.
Margaret Wheatley, Who Do We Choose To Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, 2017.