It happened again last month. Another well-known church leader was accused of sexual abuse. And the story had a familiar ring. The male church leader claimed the relationship was consensual, the female that it was sexual abuse. It seems that almost daily stories emerge of high visibility movie stars, sports figures, business leaders, politicians, priests and pastors being called out for sexual abuse. And virtually every time there are contrasting versions of the relationship or incident in question.
In these situations, the truth lies in one of three scenarios. One party is lying, and the other is truthful. Both are lying. Or both believe they are being truthful. After a lifetime of rubbing shoulders with powerful male hierarchal leaders I can say with some degree of confidence that, at least with pastors, the third scenario is far and away the most prevalent. Both sides have different perspectives, but both genuinely feel they are being truthful. Why is this so? I believe in many if not most cases the male church leader is naïve, calloused, or simply blind to the effects of their power. Let’s look at five of those effects.
5 Effects Powerful Leaders Have On People
Pastors and religious leaders wield a great deal of power in the U.S. Most of the times, this power comes in the form of communication efficacy, oratory skills, leadership abilities, pastoral gifts and relational strengths that makes them unique. In the process they are often glorified and even attain cult-like status with an exaggerated influence. This glorification leads to at least 5 prominent effects on their followers:
- The Freeze Effect: Here a person is so stunned, taken aback, or startled by what the leader says or does that they freeze, unable to speak or move. This effect is described by many women who claim they were sexually abused by powerful men. Powerful men read the freeze effect as a willingness to proceed with their advances.
- The Shut-Down Effect: Sometimes a leader’s words and/or actions are so powerful that they shut people down. They want to speak up, they want to challenge but simply don’t have the fortitude to do so. The powerful leader reads this lack of response as agreement with their position.
- The Intimidation Effect: Intimidation can take on many forms but in each case the root cause is fear. It can be physical fear, emotional fear, or fear of loss of the relationship or loss of job. Similar to the Freeze Effect and The Shut-Down Effect, the powerful leader intimidates and pressures people into submission. Whether intentional or unintentional on the part of the leader, the follower’s acquiescence gives them a green light to proceed.
- The Respect Effect: Most leaders enjoy the respect and trust of their followers. This respect and trust can cause a follower to not challenge the requests or behaviors of the leader, even if they contradict their values or better judgement.
- The Yes Man Effect: Most followers want to please their leader. They will agree with what the leader asks of them out of a genuine desire to please and support. Naturally, the powerful leaders see this agreement as supportive of his agenda.
No doubt there are many powerful leaders who are fully aware of these effects and use them masterfully to manipulate people to accomplish the end result they desire. Other powerful leaders are not accustomed to being told no and see resistance as code for “try harder” or “try another tact.” But many powerful leaders are at least at times totally oblivious to the effects the power of their words and actions have. It is these leaders that must come to understand these effects and the givens that come with their position of power.
Given #1: In this space I have repeatedly stated my belief that the number one problem with most religious leaders is that they don’t know and understand themselves and this leads to a host of blind spots. It also virtually guarantees they aren’t skilled at knowing and understanding others. And it is a given that if you don’t know and understand yourself or others, then you will at some point abuse your power.
Given #2: A second given is that the 5 Effects mentioned above are active to varying degrees in every relationship or encounter the powerful leader has. In most instances there are multiple effects simultaneously in play with each encounter. This amplifies the impact of the leader’s power and influence.
Given #3: It is a given that powerful hierarchal leaders will abuse their power. Even the most aware and humble of powerful leaders will at some point misuse their power. It is not a matter of if, but rather when, where and how. It is a predictable by-product of hierarchal leadership.
Knowing these givens, it is incumbent upon powerful hierarchal leaders to take steps to better understand themselves and others, to be able to recognize and take into account the effects of their power, and to put into place the proven disciplines, practices, and boundaries necessary to minimize the abuse of their influence and power. In our next post we will examine some of the causes and attitudes associated with the abuse of power by powerful leaders.
Posted on July 19, 2022