Challenging Authority, Redefining Leadership: Authentic Power


By Jenny

Last month I wrote about my experience challenging authority.  This post is my attempt to redefine our current understanding of leadership and authority, based on what I see as our natural evolutionary course toward progress.

A few months ago I read this definition of leadership given by a viable candidate for United States President, which I think epitomizes our current understanding:

“I’m a leader; I’m a leader; I’ve always been a leader; I’ve never had any problem leading people.  If I say do it, they’re going to do it.”  Donald Trump, GOP Presidential Debate, Detroit Michigan.

For historical records, I have given credit to the voice of this quote, though I really don’t like giving this man any more attention.  The reason I quote him is because I think any rational person can see that this idea is crazy.  It’s especially crazy when it comes from a man that you don’t trust; more especially when he is saying that the armed forces will follow him, even if he is telling them to go against the law and torture people.

Yet I believe that this is the way we see leadership in our current world.  A leader is someone whom others follow.  And while you may not trust this particular man who claims leadership and an authority to make people follow him, other people do.  And they are following him.  Does that make him a leader?  What is his authority that justifies him calling himself a leader and expecting others to follow him?  His authority doesn’t come from authentic internal empowerment, because a true leader who is internally empowered would not expect people to follow him/her simply because s/he is a leader or in a position of external power.

Unfortunately, I feel like this is the kind of leadership that exists in the Church.  This quote from Thomas S. Monson seems to have the same resonance as the quote above:

“If you want to see the light of heaven, if you want to feel the inspiration of Almighty God, if you want to have that feeling within your bosom that your Heavenly Father is guiding you, then follow the prophets of God.  When you follow the prophets, you will be in safe territory.” Thomas S. Monson, Follow the Prophets, Ensign January 2015.

What exactly is their authority that they can equate following them to following God?  I see only the fruits of an external authority.  They rose to their positions through external qualities consisting of the correct gender, positions they’ve held in the church, and who they knew.  They inherited their “authority” externally through an act of laying on of hands.  Are those things enough to give them power to speak for God in such a way that if they say do it we’re supposed to do it?

This feels like dictatorial leadership which has never boded well for the world.  I don’t believe that God would lead the world through dictatorial authority.  In fact, I think what the world needs in order to progress is for every human being to become authentically empowered from within.

True leadership is not an external position.  Someone can run a country or a church or a corporation and not be a true leader.  True leadership does not mean that people follow you.  Someone can lead his/her followers to kill/maim/hurt the sacred beauty of life, and that does not make him/her a leader.  True leadership does not claim authority over another human being.  A man may claim to speak for God when he tells a fourteen-year-old girl that she is to marry him.  Leaders may claim to speak God’s will when they discriminate against a group of people based on their race, sexual orientation, or gender.  Many wars have been fought and people killed with God’s supposed blessing.  Yet none of these things have occurred with true authority.  You can recognize true authority by the fruits it produces.

The kind of leadership and authority I am talking about requires the person claiming it to undergo a process of clearing him/herself of egocentric and selfish tendencies.  It requires self-awareness.  A true leader is a whole and integrated person who sees beyond his/her own experience, reveres life in every form, and considers the consequences of his/her actions.  A true leader would never say, “Follow me, do what I say.”  True leadership comes from a simple power of being that invites others to shift.

Here is an example of the simplicity of true leadership.  A few months ago I was frustrated with a certain school district policy in our area.  I was so frustrated that I needed someone on whom to take out my anger.  Fortunately for me, the school secretary was clear with herself.  My emotions were charged, but she remained neutral.  She led from within, simply in her way of being despite a formidable force raging from my own emotions.  Because of her inner work to remain calm despite my moment of rage, my energy also became neutral and we were able to discuss the matter calmly.  I even discovered that she felt the same way I did about the policy, despite the fact that she had to follow it to keep her job.

True, authentic, empowered leadership comes from doing the inner work.  It comes from a way of being.  It is available to everyone.  It is not something obtained through wealth, birthright, knowing the right people, or following the right social rules.  It does not require hierarchical ladders, in fact it breaks down hierarchies.  This means that a leader of a church who has millions of followers does not automatically get the right to claim leadership and authority.  Yet a school secretary dealing with an angry parent can lead simply in her way of being.

This is authentic power and it is available to all of us.  Authentic empowerment will break down our need for external authority and leadership.  I believe it is the force behind the scripture I quoted in my last post: “The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man(woman) should not counsel his(her) fellow man(woman), neither trust in the arm of flesh—“  D&C 1:19(gender inclusive language added)

Our world and our church are in need of this shift in power that will only come as we each do the work to become authentically empowered and to give up the idea of external leadership.  I love this quote in a book called “The Seat of the Soul” by Gary Zukav, because it expresses a vision of what the world will look like when we work toward authentic empowerment instead of trusting and following external leadership.

“Our deeper understanding leads us to another kind of power, a power that loves life in every form that it appears, a power that does not judge what it encounters, a power that perceives meaningfulness and purpose in the smallest details upon the Earth.  This is authentic power.  When we align our thoughts, emotions, and actions with the highest part of ourselves, we are filled with enthusiasm, purpose, and meaning.  Life is rich and full.  We have no thoughts of bitterness.  We have no memory of fear.  We are joyously and intimately engaged with our world.  This is the experience of authentic power.

Authentic power has its roots in the deepest source of being.  Authentic power cannot be bought, inherited, or hoarded.  An authentically empowered person is incapable of making anyone or anything a victim.  An authentically empowered person is one who is so strong, so empowered, that the idea of using force against another is not part of his or her consciousness.”

Jenny graduated from BYU with a bachelor degree in humanities. she teaches yoga classes and spends her time hanging out with her four kids, reading, writing, and running.


  1. Your assertion seems to be that Apostles are not called of God, but rather by men. And that therefore their authority is not God given. Am I correct in my reading?

    The Authority to lead the Church comes from God, does it not? And if it doesn’t, how does this Church have the authority to save our souls, through Christ?

      • So now stating that the Apostles have divine authority from God is claiming prophetic infallibility? The point seems to me to be that authority is not something that is given because of the personal merits of the leader but because of the virtue and wisdom of God. This doesn’t mean the leader will be flawless or infallible, but it does mean that the individual has divine authority from God and holds power and authority that we do not.

      • My point in this post and the last one is that this authority is available to each of us through authentic empowerment. It’s not just given to a few men on a silver platter arranged by God. It is developed within us through a lot of work. For me, that leaves a lot more room to accept fallibility than the idea that certain men were given divine authority from God notwithstanding any merits of their own, and we’re supposed to follow them.

    • Jenny, unfortunately your point didn’t across too well. I don’t, despite what Ziff seems to think, believe in prophetic infallibility. I do believe in collective infallibility – that together the Apostles will not fail us. Individually they can, and have – including ancient and modern.

      The problem I have with your post, which is well thought out, is that Authority in a church sense is God given. The extent to which we allow another to exercise authority over us will always depend on our faith in that individual. The same is true of secular leaders. The President of a country is given, by democracy, authority to run a country. The extent to which he can do that depends on whether the electorate are then prepared to put up with their choice.

      The doctrine of foreordination probably covers what you are saying. A person may be foreordained to become prophet and president of the Church, whether he does will depend on how he lives up to the foreordination, and is ready to lead the Church.

      • Andrew, this is a good example of what I mean when I say this is our current understanding of authority and leadership. Unfortunately, this understanding of authority has never worked well for the world. It has resulted in genocide, crusades, and a number of other atrocities. It has never worked well in the church either. If the leaders of the church have a collective infallibility, how is it that they have failed in regards to women, Native Americans, black people, and LGBT Members? And don’t try to tell me they haven’t. Go study some history first and see what the current church understanding of authority has done.

  2. I like this post, Jenny. It’s particularly interesting how the Church moved from having a leader at the beginning who was more charismatic to the business-like structure we have now, where as you point out, leaders rise through the ranks largely based on being male businessmen from Utah who know the existing leaders.

  3. My observations have been that as one sees a level in rise of leadership with the church, such as from a young women’s leader up to stake young women’s president and from there up to general young women’s president you also see a striking humility and ability to lead and guide. The same it is for males in the church. Both female and male are leaders in the church. You said by their fruits…
    So I ask- what qualities do the general young women’s presidency lack to not be the leaders they should be?

    • That’s a good clarifying question Rob. I’m not speaking to individual leaders and a lack of leadership qualities. Certainly, I agree with you that an external leadership position can help someone in the process of doing internal work to develop authentic power. External leadership can also be a barrier to a person’t ability to look inward and become self-aware, because it can make someone feel like they have already arrived. I’m speaking to a systemic problem of thinking that external leadership equates to automatic authority or the idea that external leadership itself is what makes someone a leader. Just because someone is the president of the young women organization or relief society, or the church, does not mean that they have done the inner work that i talked about in this post or that they deserve our strict obedience to everything they say. And, if they have done the work, they will feel no need to tell us to follow them. They will simply lead from within, and a natural shift will take place. In my example above, the school secretary didn’t tell me she was a leader and tell me I needed to follow her. She led from within, and that is the fruit I am talking about. Sometimes I have seen those fruits produced by the leaders of the church, and sometimes I have not.

      • My observation has been that God calls people who are humble, hard workers, and great at leadership abilities to lead and guide his church. It isnt just handed to them on silver platters like some believe. They are actually qualified through the Holy Ghost to lead, guide and counsel. That qualification is not easy either. It requires working harder, it requires greater hunility, it requires more prayer and studying scriptures than normal, it requires more fasting and special care. In the end, that qualification equates to being like Christ with a greater love for all mankind. It empowers because of diligence, faith, and focus on choosing the right coupled with hard physical and spiritual preparations.
        As such, you look at our church and it is by far the greatest organization as far as being able to build Zion. Its very structured and orderly and runs highly efficient compared to any other church out there.
        The prophet and apostles, along with all other general leaders, both male and female, are qualified through their obedience. We too can have that same empowerment to lead and guide in our callings and stewardships. But you still need a general leader and that is why we have prophets and apostles. Gods house is a house of order. The organization required to build Gods kingdom here on this earth cannot possibly come without qualified leaders whose calling it is to correlate the masses and direct the broad focus where it needs it.

        The perception that leaders become leaders just because of who they know or their gender, etc is a shallow understanding of God and his workings. Every leader is prequalified through the spirit to lead. Those leaders at the upper tier, if there even is such a thing, are qualified or empowered by the spirit, not by their “title” nor by who they know.

      • Rob, the problem I have with this is the assumption that anybody who issues a calling, whether at the local or general level, is doing so with the 100% clear inspiration of God. I have known bishops and stake presidents who have used that position of trust and authority to sexually abuse those in their stewardship. For them, they were given callings with great authority, stewardship, and responsibility, despite not being humble nor obedient – they got it through looking the part and outward appearances. My point is that we all see through, as Paul said, “a glass darkly,” meaning that every one of us is subject to bias and foibles by virtue of our human condition. I believe that this applies as much to local leadership as it does to general leadership, and while we can work hard to make that glass as clear as we can, until we’re willing to deconstruct our own narratives, complicity in systems of oppression, and privileges, it’s not going to be as clear as it should be. And our callings in leadership are not necessarily indicative of having done that internal work.

        Jenny, I love what you’ve done here, because I often believe that moral authority is achieved and demonstrated by example rather than claimed. This kind of authority comes, as you said, from working towards being the highest version of ourselves. This post is just lovely.

  4. I’m with you Jenny. I think this is important, especially for women. When we don’t have “official” authority in most situations we have to find our own.

  5. Liz,
    We must to remember that Lucifer fell and drew 1/3 the hosts of heaven with him. Certainly we shouldnt think Gods kingdon was oppresive and of privelage.

    • Rob, I have no idea what you’re trying to say, or what satan has to do with Liz’s comment. She is completely right about the abuse that has taken place at the hands of leaders, and that is one of the many dangers of giving people authority over other people. I will speak to a few points that you made above. First of all, our church is not the greatest organization out there. We have our strengths and weaknesses like anyone else, and many other organizations do certain things better than us. I also don’t believe that efficiency is a high priority to a God who would leave the ninety and nine to go after the one. I think our Heavenly Parents care more about taking care of the needs of each individual than they do about correlating the masses. That is why I believe they gave each of us the individual capacity to become authentically empowered authorities in our own lives. Honestly, I think it’s blasphemous to say that God gives certain individuals authority over others, especially when you look at the suffering it has caused throughout the history of the world. That is my understanding of God. You can think it’s shallow if you want. I don’t care.

      • Jenny,
        My point with bringing up Satan is that he was in a position of authority in heaven and he fell. Is God wrong for his system of leadership there? A lot of anti-Mormoms point out the rare instances that a bishop or stake president makes bad choices and then conclude the church and its leaders are thus wrong. But, in that same token, we know Lucifer was in charge and he fell. So, under that same set of calculations, God must be wrong too.

    • Rob, I’m certainly not saying that even those who are doing their best don’t make mistakes (in fact, I would argue that 95% of the harm we do to one another in the world is done with good intentions). Nor am I saying that a few bad stake presidents make the entire church “wrong,” as you put it. I’m saying that the system that we have set up is flawed, because it’s made and implemented by humans, and that we are ultimately responsible for ourselves and, to a lesser degree, those within our stewardship. So it’s our responsibility to claim that inner authority that God has granted us to do our best to follow Christ. I don’t see the earthly structure of the church as something that God drew out on a piece of paper and then handed to Joseph Smith to implement (and if that was the case, we have a problem, because church structure looks much different now than it did in Joseph’s time). I see the structure of the church as a scaffolding that has been built (by humans, doing their prayerful best) to try to bring people unto Christ. That structure is not without failings, just like the humans that built it. If we are going to sustain the structure, we need to be able to point out places that it’s weak, so that we can fix those weaknesses together and make it stronger.

  6. If what you say is true about a true leader then Christ must not be a true leader because he does say “follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do.”(2 NEPHI 31:12) . That declaration is by very definition the process of external leadership.

    • Here is what I wrote if you don’t want to read the whole lesson:
      One example we can look to for powerful leadership is Christ. Ezra Taft Benson said,[box] “The power of Christ’s leadership grew from the challenge of His example. His clarion call was, “Come follow me!”…His [success in gaining] the loyalty and devotion of men to principles of righteousness depend[ed] upon love as the great motivation factor. He helped us realize that the godlike qualities in each of us clamoring for expression can become glorious living realities. His example continues as the greatest hope and strength of mankind.” ETB Manual[/box]

      We often think of leaders in terms of people who were born to a privileged position or who rise to it based on who they know. But Christ was a leader because of the way he dealt with challenges and let love guide him. I love the line in President Benson’s quote here that says, “He helped us to realize that the godlike qualities in each of us clamoring for expression can become glorious living realities.” Everyone on earth has the godlike potential to be leaders as they meet challenges and live out their personal callings.

      • I fully agree. But this is a lot different than what has been said thus far. It’s true that we all have potential to be like Christ. My only beef is the invalid supposition that LDS male church leaders are somehow unqualified to be true Christ like leaders based on priveledge or “who they know”. I really get the feeling that you have issues with the male leaders of the church. Am I wrong?

  7. I don’t think I totally agree with you, though I’m having a hard time articulating why. Perhaps part of the difficulty is semantic. While I agree with you that true authority, leaders who inspire others to follow, comes from internal change, that doesn’t line up with what it means to be a leader, or even what it means to be a GOOD leader. Good leaders might well have acquired external power and lack internal actualization and yet lead others, whereas self-actualized people might not bring any to follow.

    I think the real problem is that we can’t quickly or easily see someone else’s heart, particularly on such a vast scale as the church. We all want to have leaders who have sought only to serve with humility, who have not let power go to their heads and who do not let private agendas or beliefs dictate policies or doctrine. The problem is, most of us will never meet any of the apostles or the Prophet, and even if we do we won’t ever be an intimate enough friend to feel we know their hearts. So the pronouncement that God has verified their hearts and found them ideal is supposed to be comforting — that we can trust these leaders are Godly and have divine authority and we don’t need to worry. But it is hard to keep that trust when it is impossible to feel like you can verify it by a personal connection with the man in question.

    I feel like this isn’t really articulating what I’m thinking. I appreciate your exploration of these ideas and I need to think more.

  8. I have long debated in my mind what it must be like to be an apostle looking kind of the other way on us from their POV. I think the hardest part for them, in a worldwide church, is that the personalization to their audience is hard because its just impossible to intimitely know each individual or make a personal connection with all. As such, to those special occasions where an apostle or general authority does meet at the ward or stake level, I find it comforting that they try really hard to shake everyones hand and make a special connection with each one in attendance. Its comforting to know that they really do care about each of us and want to share our joys, our pains, our sadness, our gladness. They arent just some disconnected high and almighty person, no, they are just like us and want to serve us.
    Things certainly were different in the early church where every member had connections with the apostles and prophets. Because of that fact I can see where a greater loyalty would be present. Now we must go off of faith and trust in them having not known them personally. Because of this reality I can see where it becomes easier to scrutinize the prophets, especially if our lives our not in harmony to the commandments and in line with the living prophets.

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