The Leader You Don’t Want To Be: The Power Broker

Well, if you’ve been following along these past couple of days, it’s been an interesting ride as we’ve explored some of the most common models of bad leadership. To review, we’ve already discussed the poser leader and the prostitute leader. If you haven’t had a chance to read those yet, please take a look.

Today, we’re going to conclude this series on leaders you don’t want to be with a look into one of the most pervasive models of bad leadership – the power broker.

The Power Broker

Power brokers are probably the most common form of bad leadership for one simple reason – people in all eras of history have confused “leadership” with “power over others.” Power brokers are found just about anywhere and in any situation. Why? Because the major motivators of power brokers are fear and selfishness – probably the most common issues of the self that humans have to conquer in order to make themselves great – and many don’t.

The definition of a power broker according to the dictionary is a person who deliberately affects the distribution of political or economic power by exerting influence or by intrigue. Interesting…right? Power brokers now begin to take shape in our minds as anyone who wants things to go their way and will do just about anything to bend the situation in their direction.

My most memorable personal experience with a power broker was my unceremonious firing from a church where I was the student ministries director back in 2003. I had only held the position since the beginning of that year, but by the end of my first six weeks, it became obvious that tensions were mounting. I was clearly under the assumption that when I was hired, I was hired to be part of a team. When you’re on a team, you know your position and play it to the best of your ability while the coach facilitates each player’s contribution to the team by keeping them focused on the whole and altering the game strategy when necessary to achieve the desired results. It didn’t take long for me to discover that my assumptions about being a part of a team were drastically different from reality.

For example, every week the senior pastor would hold a staff meeting where he would regularly ask us for our feedback on the past Sunday’s service. I still remember the very first staff meeting I was a part of. Being that this was my first one, and I was the new guy, I was anxious to see what this process was about. He looked down the table we were gathered around and asked us if we had any questions or concerns about how things went during the weekend. I was patiently waiting for the others to speak up and start the conversation, but no one ever did. I found that curious, so I kicked off the party with a list of suggestions from the page of notes I took in the sound booth on that past Sunday morning.

I don’t recall every word that was uttered, but I do remember two things: one, was the way that the two guys sitting next to me at the table literally separated themselves physically from me when I began to speak by moving their chairs away from me and two, was the shocked look on the pastor’s face when I pulled out a whole sheet of suggestions. Needless to say, my observations weren’t very well received. In retrospect, I was already on my way out the door the first week I started. But it took them seven months before they decided it was time to give me the ax.

I won’t get into all the gory details, but suffice it to say, the way they handled my exit was classic power broker stuff. I was asked to a secluded location for a “meeting,” the contents of which were kept secret from me. I was made to listen to all of my flaws given by a panel of judges (in front of my wife, by the way). And then I was given a choice to continue to work for the next couple of weeks, or just leave quietly. Some choice, eh? That was pretty bad, but the worst was yet to come.

In the days that followed, I received phone calls from the board of directors one at a time letting me know that they had nothing to do with the decision to let me go – this leader had acted unilaterally. Hmmm. I got a whole other flurry of phone calls after the announcement was made to the congregation and the extended “leadership” team that I was no longer on staff. Why? Because of those curious words that were used to describe the reasons for my exit – “It was a character issue.” What in the world is that supposed to mean? Well, the church didn’t know either, so they came up with all sorts of theories to fill in the gap of communication. I had wild conversations that ranged from, “Jeremy, I can’t believe you cheated on Lisa,” to “Is it true that you cussed out the pastor and stole things from the office?” It was brutal. But that’s the nature of the power broker. Causing chaos by influencing the thoughts of others with intriguing phrases that cause doubt and fear in the hearts and minds of others so that they can accomplish what they selfishly desire.

“If the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.” – Jesus

Think mine is an isolated story? Think again, my friends. This takes place all the time on a local and global scale. In families? Check. In schools? Double-check. In churches? Forget about it. How about businesses? Yep. And politics? Are you kidding me? So, to help you identify the trademarks of the power broker, I’ve compiled a short list of three things you can be on the lookout for:

  1. Power Brokers operate from insecurity. It’s true. The major motivation behind the power broker is fear. Fear of what? Fear that they’ll be found a fraud. Fear that they won’t be enough on their own. Fear that those they’re leading will find out that they are really just the old man behind the green curtain and the not the Wizard they’ve made themselves out to be. But that’s all really the fear of rejection. They’re deathly afraid of being criticized. So what happens when they find themselves in that position? They spin positive webs of words until they’ve established the ruse of trust with their followers again, and if that doesn’t work, they orchestrate the exit of those that disagree with them. It’s this motivation that has them surrounding themselves with “yes” men so that they never have to feel the bitter sting of disapproval. True leaders are those that seek feedback and constantly alter their direction in order to improve the direction of what they’re leading. They are motivated by love (service + sacrifice) and never get sidelined by fear.
  2. Power Brokers seek to control every outcome. The natural extension of this motivation of fear is to control others. Remember, power brokers confuse “power over others” with “leadership.” Would it surprise you to know that this problem pre-existed humanity? According to the ancient Hebrew book of beginnings, Genesis, God made mankind (the species) and then gave ruling authority of the earth to human beings in chapter 1 and verse 26 where it states, “Then God said, Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Now, I want you to go back and read that sentence again and ask yourself, “What is noticeably absent from that list of things we are to have authority over?” I’ll give you a second…did you read it again? If so, maybe you’ve noticed what’s conspicuously absent from the Creator’s list – people! We were never meant to have ruling authority over each other. In fact, just about every single problem in human history can be traced back to this tiny passage of ancient wisdom. Power brokers desire power over others by utilizing fear because real leadership requires the hard work of being the change you want to see in others and inviting them to follow you because of the influence your life’s example affords.
  3. Power Brokers create immobilizing confusion. Because of the easily identifiable gaps in the power broker’s leadership, they find themselves regularly challenged by others who see their flaws. When this happens, they find ways to stymie the whole by releasing communications that create confusion in the camp. For instance, friends at a local private school were just hit with the abrupt loss of their child’s teacher at the end of February. It was well-known that this teacher had the responsibility (definitely can’t be described as the privilege) of teaching the principal’s eldest child. This child was also well-known to have massive behavioral issues that were noticed and gossiped about the school over. So, it’s not hard to see where this is headed. After countless meetings with the principal about the problems that his own flesh and blood was causing her and her class, this teacher had had enough, and just couldn’t see swallowing the “red kool-aid” any longer. She was gone on a Tuesday morning and that very night was an already scheduled activity with the parents of that class. The principal decided to carry on with the meeting and, while communicating to the parents the situation of the teacher leaving was asked why she was gone. His answer? “I can’t say anything about the details of her exit because of privacy laws…but I can tell you that your children were never put in any situation where they would be harmed.” Brilliant. By leading the parents in this discussion down an unfinished thought pattern of fear, he created an environment that demonized their child’s former teacher and kept them from taking united action against him because of the natural disagreement that would now take place amongst those that thought he was full of it, and those that thought he was being sincere. Power brokers love to create confusion and regularly resort to this form of communication in hopes that no one will discover what’s really going on. In stark contrast, true leaders communicate clearly (to a fault, sometimes) and are regularly known as “tell it like it is” types. Why? Because when you have nothing to hide, then you don’t hide anything. There’s never a need for darkness when light is present. 

The proliferation of power broker leaders is pervasive and poisonous…period. If we want to have any chance at peace, we’ll have to do something drastic to alter the all too common human desire for power over another – but first we’ll have to conquer it in ourselves. It’s a daunting task, but it can be done. I promise. (That was a lot of “p” words, wasn’t it?)

“It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” – St. Francis of Assisi

I hope you enjoyed this series on leaders you don’t want to be and I’d love to hear your feedback and stories in the comments section below. Bad leaders are everywhere, but we can do something about it. The first step? Becoming the leaders we want to be. Hmmm…I feel a series on real leadership coming in the near future. Stay tuned ;-).


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