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Exercising Righteous Influence

In an episode of M*A*S*H, Colonel Potter is called to Seoul and leaves Hawkeye in charge. Hawkeye, who instinctively challenges authority, experiences what it’s like to be in charge, and on several occasions, he oversteps his authority. When Potter returns, he sits down with Hawkeye and B.J., who are feuding about B.J. violating one of Hawkeye’s orders. Potter lets the two surgeons go at each other and remains quiet until Hawkeye tries to enlist his support. “Why aren’t you helping me?” Hawkeye asks. “You should be in the middle of this. You’re the commander.”

Colonel Potter replies, “And I’m acting like one, staying out of it ’til I’m needed. It’s all in the timing, son. There’s a time to step in and a time to back off. Pull the reins too tight and the horse will buck.”

Leadership is all in the timing. Leaders are vested with authority, but just because they have it does not mean all of them know how and when to use it. Watching someone who has grown accustomed to having authority, makes leading look natural and easy, but appearances can be deceiving. Effective leaders are always recalculating, reorienting, and readjusting to new circumstances. Leaders strive to know others well enough to anticipate their reactions, but one cannot account for the range of possible reactions. Therein lies the dilemma: how do you know when to step in and when to back off?

What Should George Do?

George is a section supervisor at Pinnacle Production Research Corporation. George’s section has primary responsibility for the reservoir database project, and he has assigned three of his key people to that project—Tess, David, and Gene. The reservoir database project is way behind schedule. George knows the project is extremely important to Pinnacle’s management, and it is also important that it is finished on time.

George’s boss called this morning, looking for someone to help write his board presentation, which is three weeks away. It is a compliment for someone from George’s section to be asked to do this, and it would be an excellent development opportunity for one of his people. Omar is the ideal candidate for this assignment, but he has made plans to take his family to Disney World and purchased nonrefundable tickets three months ago (after checking with George to ensure there were no work conflicts). Tess is also a capable writer and could benefit from the exposure, but George knows if he pulls her away from the reservoir database project, it will fall further behind schedule. He has seen her in the office the past three weekends, and he knows she is feeling tremendous pressure to get her part of the project back on schedule. As George considers others, he realizes that nobody else would be suitable for assisting with the board presentation.

George calls Omar and offers to have the company pay rebooking fees if Omar delays his vacation three weeks. Omar thanks George but explains that his wife and children have been planning the trip for nearly a year. “I checked this out with you a long time ago,” protests Omar, “and you were completely fine with it.”

What should George do? He realizes he could order Omar to delay his vacation. Besides, isn’t he really only thinking of what is best for Omar and his career? George doesn’t want to tell his boss that he can’t help him, and he doesn’t want to take Tess away from her work.

Influence and Acceptance

Chester Barnard, an early and influential management theorist, offered George a useful way to think about his leadership challenge. Barnard proposed that when superiors give their subordinates assignments, there is a “range of acceptance” within which assignments are received. He described this range as three zones: 1) a zone of resistance, where assignments are rejected unless extreme pressures are applied; 2) a zone of compliance, where influence must be exercised, but it need not be extreme or excessive for an assignment to be accepted; and 3) a zone of indifference, where subordinates will accept assignments, whether or not influence is applied.

Barnard’s three zones of acceptance provide two key insights. First, when a leader’s influence crosses the line between the zone of compliance and the zone of resistance, they have likely overstepped their authority. George should not apply extreme pressure by questioning Omar’s commitment to the group, threatening him with a poor performance review, or pushing his guilt buttons. The challenge for George is finding the line between persuading and forcing, which is different for Omar than it would be for anyone else.

Second, a leader’s ability to influence is based on power. Generally, there are two sources of power: position power and personal power. For example, control over information is an aspect of position power; expertise is a source of personal power. Empirical research suggests that while the use of personal power is more effective overall, the most successful leaders use a combination of position and personal power.

George can exercise his position power as Omar’s boss and also his personal power, based on compelling rationale. The more George relies on personal power the better.

What If . . . ?

The above analysis of George’s decision is pretty standard—based on insights from management theory. But what if George were a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? According to instructions in Doctrine & Covenants 121, righteous Church members have special insights and power available to them. Elder Neal A. Maxwell called verses 41–44 of section 121 the “supernal spiritual style of leadership.” They read:

41. No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

42. By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—

43. Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;

44. That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.

These are likely the most profound and concise sentences written about leadership.

We learn that answering the questions of how and when to step in deals as much with the leader’s readiness (are his/her motives correct and pure?) as the needs of the persons he or she leads. If a leader’s intent is not right, it may be better for him or her to back off and make some internal adjustments before stepping in. Ideally, when leaders step in they practice righteous influence, not unrighteous dominion; when they back off they want to practice righteous self-control, not unrighteous neglect.

Fully understanding and appreciating verses 41–44 also requires attention to the surrounding verses.

The Plan of Salvation

The “supernal spiritual style of leadership” (D&C 121: 26–33; 46) is a doctrine nested inside knowledge about the plan of salvation and the covenant of heavenly power (See figure 1). In verses 26–27 of section 121, knowledge is discussed “that has not been revealed since the world was until now.”

26. God shall give unto you knowledge by his holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, that has not been revealed since the world was until now;

27. Which our forefathers have awaited with anxious expectations to be revealed in the last times, which their minds were pointed to by the angels, as held in reserve for the fulness of their glory; . . .

This is knowledge about the plan of salvation shared during our premortal existence. How do we know this knowledge was revealed to us in premortality? The answer is in the text of verse 26. Why would it be described as knowledge “that has not been revealed since the world was” unless it was revealed before the world was? Because our forefathers are awaiting the knowledge, this seems more specifically to be knowledge about the temple and the saving ordinances for the dead.

In verse 46, the topic of discussion returns to the plan of salvation, shifting into the future and focusing on the rewards received by the righteous.

46. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.

Why is it important to understand the “supernal, spiritual style of leadership” in the context of the plan of salvation? After Zion was lifted into heaven, Enoch beheld many things as the Lord revealed His eternal plan. In Moses 7:32–33, the Lord instructed Enoch about two doctrines fundamental to the plan of salvation and particularly important to understanding righteous influence: 1) respect for man’s agency, and 2) love for one another (the second great commandment or what Elder Maxwell called our “social stewardships”). Juxtaposed, these two doctrines create a dynamic tension. Remember Colonel Potter’s statement: “There’s a time to step in and a time to back off.” The gospel of love encourages people to step in when others need assistance, but the doctrine of agency reminds us there are also times when others are better served if we back off.

The core doctrines of the plan of salvation teach us that the “supernal, spiritual style of leadership” encompasses both righteous influence and righteous self-control. The decision whether to exercise righteous influence or righteous self-control is a difficult one for righteous leaders. Of course, the Holy Ghost can guide such decisions, providing the particulars—exactly what to do as well as when and where to do it. An understanding of the doctrine of agency in relation to man’s “social stewardship,” provides the necessary context for these challenging leadership decisions.

When George considers what he should do with Omar, he is probably better off thinking of himself as exercising influence, not authority. He exercises influence by advising Omar about the benefits

he receives from helping with the board speech. Coercion is not an option—Omar must see for himself a connection between his personal goals and the organization’s goals and choose to do what George wants him to do. Ultimately, George’s primary concern should be Omar’s welfare, and even if Omar’s choice is contrary to what George believes to be best for him, George must respect it.

The Covenant of Heavenly Power

The covenant of heavenly power is the agreement by which man assists God in accomplishing the plan of salvation and righteous leaders receive divine, enabling help. In Doctrine & Covenants 121:36, the covenant states that the powers of heaven may be exercised only upon the principles of righteousness.

Verse 45 of section 121 completes the covenant of heavenly power (revealed in verses 34–38) and lists the three essential principles of righteousness—be full of charity, exercise faith, and maintain virtue. If leaders follow these three principles their confidence will “wax strong in the presence of God,” and the “doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon [their] soul as the dews from heaven” (D&C 121:45). Verse 37 cautions that priesthood power will be withdrawn if holders hide their sins, gratify their pride and vain ambitions, or practice unrighteous dominion.

37. That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.

45. Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.

The covenant makes plain to us both the principles of righteousness and unrighteousness, as depicted in figure 2.

When used by itself, the word charity evokes a desire to help and assist our brothers and sisters. It is a principle of lifting others. Contrasting charity to unrighteous dominion helps us understand that charity is broader; unlike unrighteous dominion it includes deep respect for man’s agency.

The comparison between faith and gratifying pride and vain ambitions is only understood in the context of the plan of salvation. Unrighteous leaders gratify their pride and vain ambitions in the headlong pursuit of their personal agendas, in lieu of having faith in and pursuing God’s plan for them. Since they stubbornly and conceitedly follow their own course, they are left to themselves, “to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God” (D&C 121:38).

The comparison between covering sins and having virtue is an easy one to make. In Matthew 23, the Lord likens the scribes and Pharisees, both leaders in the Jewish faith, to “whited sepulchres,” which appear beautiful on the outside, but which are filled with “dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness” (verse 27). If leaders are virtuous at the core of their character, they submit to Christ and resist the temptation to cover their sins.

In order for George to exercise righteous influence, he must be righteous. The principles of righteousness require an outward focus on blessing others’ lives, an inner faith and conviction to follow God’s plan, and an overall purity of thought and action. With these influences, not only are George’s motives made righteous as he exercises personal and position power, he also becomes a chosen conduit through which the powers of heaven flow. He is now better able to see Omar’s heart and know how to act.

Righteous leadership is God’s leadership. As Church and family leaders exercise more righteous influence and the patterns of unrighteous dominion fade away, they become more like God. The process begins as emulation, but ultimately ends in sanctification through charity, faith, and virtue.

Extraordinary Returns

As associate dean, I spend a great deal of time helping form partnerships between the Marriott School and corporations. Many of the senior executives at companies I visit think that the Marriott School graduates they hire are exceptions to the rule. They cannot reconcile how a relatively isolated, non-Ivy League business school with a small graduate program can produce such outstanding graduates. They, therefore, conclude they must be getting only the cream of our small crop.

The answer of course runs much deeper. There are numerous reasons why our graduates are exceptional. I favor two explanations. First, Marriott School graduates have a unique advantage—they are able to professionally apply what they learn about leadership from the scriptures and Church experiences. Their lives have added demands, but their growth and development are vastly accelerated. Second, Marriott School graduates receive remarkable returns from the Lord—as they exercise righteous influence and live the principles of charity, faith, and virtue they are infused with powers beyond their own—bolstered by the powers of heaven, they accomplish extraordinary things.

About the Author

Lee Tom Perry is an associate dean at the Marriott School and the Sorenson Family Professor of Organizational Leadership and Strategy. He earned his PhD in administrative sciences from Yale University and his MS in organizational behavior and BS in university studies from BYU.

This article is adapted from Righteous Influence: What Every Leader Should Know about Drawing on the Powers of Heaven published in 2004 by Deseret Book.


By Lee Tom Perry
Photography by Bradley Slade

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