[Solomon said:]”…give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.”

1 Kings 3:9

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

John 10:11-18; 1 Kings 3:9

Everyone is a leader, at least in some part of their life. That at least is the claim many leadership gurus make. On my good days, I agree with them; on my more cynical days (some who know me might say most days), I tend to say that most people exercise power – often less than healthy power – over those beneath them.

Since our quote comes from the biblical King Solomon, I am going to look today at leadership, power and the need for good discernment, not least to distinguish leadership and power.

So what is power? It is literally the ability to influence and move things and people. It comes in different forms: hard power (coercion usually by force or threat); soft power (subtler than hard power, it often emphasises that interests coincide); smart power (the ability to make others do what you want by letting them think they thought of it).

Leadership, even leadership by example, inevitably involves the exercise of power. The kind of leadership I’ve talked about usually entails a mixture of soft and, above all, smart power. Though at times – expressed in the phrase ‘The buck stops here’ – hard power may be needed. But when should a leader exercise what form of power?

The problem is that leaders sometimes use the wrong kind of power, relying on hard power when soft or smart power is more appropriate, for example.

This is where discernment – a discerning heart, to use Solomon’s terms – comes into play. Discernment is the act of making choices, separating options and choosing what is best at a particular time.  This involves careful thinking through options, judging what is most appropriate, and for religious people, prayer. Good discernment from a religious perspective starts with thinking through issues clearly in the presence of God, indeed praying for clarity of thought before one starts. Once a decision is made, hopefully after consulting others, it is common to pray for further clarity and confirmation of one’s decision.

For secular people, it probably means never rushing into decisions, especially those involving the exercise of hard power.

Ask yourself. How do I exercise power? If I see a pattern in this, ask myself why I do this? Does it really work? How does discernment help me as a leader?

A Leader's Prayer

Lord, as we continue to undertake the role of leader let us be affirmed by the servant leadership we witness in your son Jesus. Let us walk in the path He has set and let those who will, follow. Let our greatest passion be compassion. Our greatest strength love. Our greatest victory the reward of peace. In leading let us never fail to follow. In loving let us never fail.


Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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