Have you ever been in a room where someone asks a question and the presenter answers with vocabulary and information that seemed designed to make the questioner look stupid? I can. I have also witnessed a presenter being asked a question that was less a question and more a clear opportunity to demonstrate superior knowledge over the presenter. I can even remember doing something similar myself when I was feeling threatened.
Knowledge and intelligence (please note that I am certainly NOT talking about wisdom here) can be wielded to gain power. This can happen on so many levels. There are people who have inside information and release it in a way that gives them status or power. There are those who have expertise on a topic who can be tempted to use their knowledge to gain power and authority. And there are times when knowledge is used to intimidate others into letting one have one’s way.
Pride and Insecurity
These access routes to power are directly connected to pride and insecurity, or a hazy combination of the two. I think the pride factor is obvious: we know something, and we feel good about making sure others know we know something. Insecurity is the other side of the same coin: we feel “less than” for some reason, so we look for an opportunity to convince others (and ourselves) that we ARE important and worthwhile, and we do that by showing, or overshowing, our knowledge/expertise in an area.
True confession time: I have times when I just want people to know that I am educated and smart! When that feeling arises, I know that it is only about my pride. On a deeper level, I am fully aware that the people I love and who love me don’t care about that stuff. My daughters call me “dad” without placing a title in front of it, and it is by far the most amazing thing I have ever been called in my life, at all times humbling, inspiring, and reorienting. I am grateful God has put my daughters and other grounded people in my life who love me by keeping me accountable and by celebrating what matters in my life.
I am also closely connected to a lot of folks who have earned their PhDs, and I observe how they walk with their titles in their personal and professional lives. One acquaintance has pretty much made it his mission to ensure that the world knows he has a PhD and that he is to be respected for it. Sadly, the respect lessens the more he trumpets his expertise. This has been helpful for me to observe.
In my Christian educational experience, I’ve seen staff members use their knowledge base to gain power over colleagues in staff meetings and discussions by citing privileged data and sometimes just talking more and louder than everyone else in the room. I’ve seen teachers use educational jargon (often unconsciously) in parent-teacher meetings so that the parents, especially if they are recent immigrants and/or uneducated, are too intimidated to ask challenging questions. I’ve seen administrators who wield their privileged access to information as if it’s a power tool to use at their discretion, to release information when it suits them and to withhold information when it is to their advantage. This disempowers and dehumanizes the staff and faculty they work with and severely limits the effectiveness of the school fulfilling its mission and vision.
I wonder if their wielding of knowledge is connected to an insecurity in their leadership position; an archaic, patriarchal understanding of leadership; an implicit arrogance; or some combination of any of the above.
Knowledge versus Wisdom
One of the most inspiring administrators I have worked with demonstrated a very high ethic in his care and use of knowledge. He was an extremely well-read and intelligent educator who readily sought input and feedback from staff and faculty and then demonstrated how that input affected decisions. He also structured conversations to ensure more equitable access to giving input, removing many of the barriers to authentic small group conversations. I don’t think I ever saw him dominate another person with either his intellectual knowledge or his access to knowledge. In turn, staff and faculty were invested in the school’s direction and supported him when a decision went contrary to their input. His staff held him in very high regard. In fact, I think they would have seen him as wise!
It strikes me as interesting that, in regards to information and knowledge, wisdom seems much more connected to listening, facilitating, and transparency than it does to presenting and controlling.
There are simple ways we can avoid the pitfalls of manipulating knowledge as power and model the same for our staff and faculty:
- How we run our staff meetings: Who gets to talk (few or all)? How is the agenda developed (any input sought)?
- How we process and make decisions: Do we seek broad input from staff, faculty, parents, and other members of the community? Do we demonstrate use of that input?
- Speaking time: Who does most of the talking at parent meetings?
- Speaking content: Are we constantly quoting to make ourselves look well read but maybe less accessible, or are we inviting others into learning with good questions and some personal vulnerability?
As you sip your favorite cold drink in the sun this summer, I encourage you to reflect on how knowledge and power intersect in your own leadership and in your school community. With this final thought: when the people of Israel were described as knowing God, they were simply following God.
– David Loewen