I got the Powah

Posted on May 18, 2010


A friend who works with me to serve a group of young women confided a conversation with me last Sunday. We get along well and communicate easily, though I happen, for the time being, to serve as president. We were at a dinner we hosted for the older ladies in our congregation last month when she was talking with an 18-year-old getting ready to graduate and leave our group.  Because, when this young woman was 12 and entered the group, my friend happened to be the president, my friend commented that she had been bookends to this young woman’s time in the group, her leader at the beginning and the end.

Another young woman sitting nearby laughed loudly and said, “Yeah, but when you came back, you didn’t have THE POWAH.”

My friend and I talked about what it means to serve together, to lean on one another, and to be equals who leave the set of keys in one person’s hands, not because they’re the smartest or most qualified, but because they’re the one holding the keys at the moment. We talked about what it means to be a leader who thinks in terms of “having THE POWAH” and how autocratic and difficult to follow that type of leader can be. We wondered how we could best teach to someone young that to lead is to sacrifice and to serve, to put yourself behind others and to consistently lift and encourage. There is no “POWAH” in that. There IS great power, in that. What a difference.

Tonight I attended the final band concert my second son has in Junior High. His band instructor is amazing, and known throughout the community as one of its jewels. He has that great leader quality of engaging his students at every level, inspiring them to be magnificent, asking great things of them, and garnering their deepest efforts while he makes what they are doing exciting and fun and rewarding. At first glance, it seems a waste for him to be at the early secondary level where their skills are yet forming. I asked if he had any interest in moving to the high school level, as they seem to run through band instructors there. He folded up like one of those sensitive plants that zips into a cocoon if you touch it. “NOOOOO. No interest at all. I like it here,” he said emphatically.

Why, I’ve wondered. Does he lack ambition? This seems unlikely. He organized a jazz band that practices daily after school, and he tutors students who want to enter the program late so they’ll be caught up with the rest, no charge. He isn’t lazy. Does he dislike marching band? Yes, but not enough to keep him from moving forward, if that were his passion. I asked again, and he said he just really loved the pace of change in students, their freedom from cynicism, and their innocence at this level.

Several years ago there was a commercial (I have no idea what it was for, so the marketer in me says, “bad commercial”) in which Larry Bird was working in a paint store, wadded up a paper, and made the trash can from across the room. It was about the loss you feel when you realize someone is not where they belong. The band teacher is right where he belongs. He has incredible power, like Larry Bird making more three pointers than is believable, and then coaching others how to do it, and some of that is because he was not in a paint store, but in the place he chose that better suited him. He doesn’t have THE POWAH, though. THE POWAH is all on the surface: the job title, the keys, the money, the position. Power comes in using those to great advantage as a leader.

When I first entered the business world over twenty years ago, ripe with my degree and filled with collegiate marketing talk that inflated the worth of my education, I went in expecting that success would be sitting at a desk, with my feet up, telling other people what to do. The best thing possible happened to me: I got fired. I spent three months looking for another job, and redefining THE POWAH. At my next job I was a servant, the marketing arm of a board of directors for an engineering firm, where I got behind their visions, did all in my power to be useful, and stayed out of the spotlight. No desks, no feet up, no POWAH. But, powerful enough that they were sorry when I left.

I’m not alone in believing this is a good way to lead. Seth Godin says so. So does Jack Welch. So did Jesus, when his followers jockeyed for position and he worked to show them a larger vision, something beyond THE POWAH.

There’s nothing wrong with being in charge. But there is so much more to it than POWAH.

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