Gordon T. Smith: Power is the capacity to do what needs doing
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A Canadian university president and author of a book on institutional leadership reflects in an interview on what it takes to guide a thriving organization.
Power isn’t evil, says Gordon T. Smith. Indeed, power is vital to a healthy organization -- it enables an institution to achieve its mission “in a way that is redemptive and generative for societies and the world of which they are a part.”
In a conversation with Faith & Leadership contributor Jason Byassee, Smith reflected on power, leadership and his role as a university president.
“I often ask, ‘What is mission-critical?’” he said. “A CEO in a nonprofit or a senior pastor also cultivates conversations about vocational clarity: ‘What is the calling of this organization?’”
Smith, an ordained minister with the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA), is the president of Ambrose University and Seminary in Calgary, Alberta. Previously, he served as dean of faculty at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C.
A prolific author, Smith most recently published “Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization.” The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What have you learned the hard way while on the job as president of Ambrose University?
I realized a year into being president of Ambrose University that the biggest and most complex issues are personnel questions. You don’t have a thriving organization without top HR people.
The beautiful building and the endowment are not the biggest assets; it’s your people. They’re your biggest problem, too -- not so much managing people as understanding how they function within an institution, how they flourish or don’t.
Before reading Susan Scott’s book “Fierce Conversations,” I thought my job was one meeting after another. She made me realize it’s actually one conversation after another. Good conversation is the heart of viable institutions that tend to relationships and people.
By “fierce” I mean without pretense, gamesmanship or manipulation. We say with clarity what needs to be said for the sake of this relationship and this institution. We name reality in a way that’s not despairing but hopeful, with what I call “hopeful realism” in “Institutional Intelligence.”
Not all relationships are created equal within an organization. For the flourishing of the organization, I need to know what are the most pivotal relationships I need to tend.
Q: How do you think about power theologically and practically?
Michael Jinkins’ book “The Character of Leadership” has a great chapter on power. He argues that disempowerment means nothing gets done.
Power is about the capacity to do what needs doing. A great mission statement can’t be delivered on without power.
We assume that [power] is inherently evil, so healthy organizations limit it. Or the assumption is that power is a zero-sum game: if I have it, you don’t. But actually, healthy organizations leverage power effectively. It must be exercised with transparency and accountability or it is exercised despotically.
Someone has to hold me accountable. Not everyone has that right, but if I deny someone tenure, I appear before the faculty tenure committee and say to the chair, “I know you’re divided. I’m casting the vote this way. Here are my reasons.”
When I report to the board, I explain these things briefly. They have the ability to push back. I don’t have absolute power, but in the language of the Association of Theological Schools, we speak of “shared power.” That means I can empower the faculty and the board; they in turn can empower me.
More power for you doesn’t mean less for me. A powerful board isn’t a threat to the president.
For faculty to wish for a weak president is a naive understanding of power. They actually want a powerful president who can do what needs doing for the flourishing of an institution. As a president, [I know that] an empowered faculty doesn’t cause me grief, nor does a powerful board.
I often ask, “What is mission-critical?” No one can ask that like the president. I recently preached a sermon on ecumenism that could only have been given by the president. The room was packed, because they knew I was putting a stake in the ground.
A CEO in a nonprofit or a senior pastor also cultivates conversations about vocational clarity: “What is the calling of this organization?” I use the language of “charism” from the Jesuits to give definition to the conversation and then moderate it.
It’s offensive when presidents come in, or pastors to churches, and say, “Here is my vision.” No. You’ve been entrusted to moderate a conversation.
Q: You mentioned your training by and use of the Jesuit tradition. Isn’t that unusual for evangelicals?
When I was an evangelical seminarian in the 1970s, we only read evangelicals -- we were a little silo. In my third year, I got to read a little Karl Barth. He was considered a dangerous heretic then.
By the time I was a pastor, I was reading his whole opus. Nobody articulates the theology of the word of God like him. I stepped out then, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
We all have to learn from other sources. There’s a book on leadership in the Christian and Missionary Alliance that’s hot right now, and I worry that I can’t tell what the author’s sources are. In any book of mine, you can tell where I’m locating myself, who I’m in conversation with, what vantage point I have from which I’m contributing to the conversation. This is what ecumenism means.
I’m going to Holy Cross Seminary in Boston in June as one of three evangelicals invited to spend three days having our work discussed by Eastern Orthodox priests. This only works if they know I’m an evangelical. I don’t downplay my heritage; I leverage it in a nonsectarian way.
I’ve learned from Greg Jones on traditioned innovation here. You can’t be faithful to your own tradition if you’re not drawing on resources outside that tradition. Ignatius Loyola gave me lenses with which to see my own tradition. A.B. Simpson, founder of the CMA, had a genius for radical Christocentrism, though it’s often poorly articulated.
A pastor heads a church, but if there’s no clear ecclesiology, it will innovate in ways that are not consistent with the faith. The CMA, my own denomination, has no ecclesiology, so innovation is a scary thing, because it’s not traditioned. Both continuity and discontinuity are essential.
Q: How do you think about fundraising?
Feminist colleagues and friends struggle with my persistent use of athletic metaphors, so I use this with some apology: the greatest batters rarely hit .400. If you hit .283 you have a full-time job in the Major Leagues; .300 puts you in the Hall of Fame.
If you’re not getting "noes," you’re not getting all the “yeses” you can. I’m having lunch with a man who said “no” twice before he said “yes.” “No” didn’t mean “Don’t come talk to me again.”
And even if it does, what have I lost?
Fundraising is the fruit of relationships with people who are partners in and owners of the mission and believe in what you’re doing. In “Institutional Intelligence,” I quote a man who said, “I don’t want to go into fundraising, because I don’t want to fleece people.” But that’s naive.
Theological faculties are paid for by generous donors. That’s just how not-for-profits work. God raises up people, gives them significant discretionary income.
As a fundraiser, you help them leverage that for good, as we have done since Lydia in Philippi in Acts 16, up until the man I have lunch with later today.
Cultivating those relationships is an essential part of the job; no one is dirtied by it. It’s a noble task to challenge people with financial resources to invest in your organization.
Henri Nouwen’s “A Spirituality of Fundraising” made me realize a major donor needs me more than I need him or her. When I meet with them, I have no problem saying the words, “There is no greater thing you can invest in, no more powerful way to impact your world, than higher education.”
Even if their heart is for the poor and marginalized -- say, for orphans in Haiti -- I can ask, “Why not give to a whole generation of students who will care about these issues?”
Q: How do you think about a small, church-related university’s responsibility to influence the broader world?
One in 100 Albertans is in the CMA, so we have to leverage that in appropriate ways. And whether we like it or not, we represent the evangelical community. As dispirited and divided as it is, we’re the only agency that can be said to represent this community in the city.
I want organizations to achieve their mission in a way that is redemptive and generative for societies and the world of which they are a part.
The question is how this happens at institutions like Ambrose. Our primary responsibility is to deliver a bachelor of arts in, say, English, so that a student can get an M.A. in English if they want.
We are judged on whether we deliver an excellent B.A. in English. If we do not, everything else we do is moot.
But if we do that really well, it inevitably gives us an institutional voice both in faith communities and in the church and society at large. Institutionally, we have to ask, not just about narrow outcomes, but where are we intent to bring reconciliation, healing and peace?
So, for example, the [Canadian Poverty Institute (CPI) at Ambrose] -- we want all our students in whatever degree to think about the homeless, the poor, the marginalized. That’s deep in our heritage in the CMA.
The mayor knows we’re just down the street from him; our new [CPI] director, Derek Cook, used to work for Mayor Nenshi. The mayor is a Muslim; he knows these are Christians. But they care about poverty; he cares about poverty.
Ask the premier of Alberta what she knows about Ambrose, and she knows that we’re evangelical, but she also knows we care about poverty.
We are intentionally in the city; we sustain a Christian voice that is a spillover of our primary mission. I want all our students to be equipped to “seek the peace of the city,” so that wherever God takes them, they will be civic-minded.
As seminarians in the 1970s, all we were trained to do was to care for our church, to make sure it grew -- ideally, fast -- even if it was by stealing from other churches. But we didn’t develop any political capacities on how to work with civic leaders, or how to seek common cause with other faith traditions or denominations. None of that was part of our formation.
We can’t do that now. I don’t need to be on a first-name basis with the mayor, but I need to relate to him as a mayor, asking what he needs from us.
We have 1,000 students. If we were in, say, Kamloops, B.C., [a midsize town in the interior,] we would dominate the town; we’d be the largest institution. The mayor and I would lunch monthly.
If we were in Toronto at the same size, the mayor would have no idea we existed; we would be a nonfactor.
But having 1,000 students in a city like Calgary of 1.3 million people, we are big enough to make a difference.