Power Is about Influence, Not Control

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Lovett H. Weems, Jr., founding director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, draws on the example of Judge Warren K. Urbom’s skill in presiding over the Wounded Knee Trials to illustrate an important leadership principle: The more willing we are to be influenced by others, the more likely they are to be influenced by us.


Last July, retired U.S. District Judge Warren K. Urbom died at the age of 91 in Lincoln, Nebraska. I learned from his example one of the most important lessons of leadership. Judge Urbom had a distinguished career as a judge. Appointed in 1970, he served until 1990 and then continued to hear cases as a senior judge until 2014. When he died, former Nebraska governor and senator Bob Kerrey said of him: “No one has sat for more important trials than Judge Warren Urbom. And no one has meted out justice with more wisdom, wit, and seriousness of purpose.”

Judge Urbom understood that power is an expandable sum. The more willing he was to be influenced by others, the more likely they were to be influenced by him.

Despite having many high-profile cases, perhaps his most challenging trials came early in his judicial career. It was decided that one federal district judge would preside over all the trials of the 150 defendants from the events in 1973 when members of the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee. They stayed for 71 days to protest conditions on the reservation located in southwestern South Dakota. Judge Warren Urbom was named to be that judge.

Judge Urbom was an active United Methodist, and there was intense public interest in these trials, so he invited the United Methodist bishop of Nebraska at the time, Don Holter, to attend the first days of the first trial. It was from Bishop Holter that I first heard this story, though I have heard it told by many others since.

Bishop Holter was there in the packed courtroom filled with both whites and Native Americans, all highly invested in the outcome, though from differing perspectives. In fact, Bishop Holter said the tension in the courtroom was such as to cause concern. In due time, the door opened for the entrance of the judge, and everyone was asked to stand. Bishop Holter reported that immediately all the whites in the courtroom stood, while no Native Americans stood, further increasing the emotions of the whites.

As Judge Urbom took his place and motioned for people to be seated, his first words were:

As we begin this trial, there are two announcements I want to make. First, I realize that standing for the entrance of a judge may not be a part of your cultural tradition. If that is the case, I want you to know that I do not take it personally. Second, when witnesses are called to testify, they will be sworn in on a Bible. However, if there is something more sacred to a witness than the Bible, that witness may choose to be sworn in on that object.

Then the trial began and continued without incident during the first day. It was the second day when things changed. Bishop Holter reported that when the judge entered, every single person in the courtroom, white and Native American, immediately stood.

As with all leaders, Judge Urbom had to make a choice about how he responded to the first-day incident. He could have insisted on his prerogatives as the judge and forced compliance with the instructions of the bailiff, lest he “lose control of the courtroom.” Instead, Judge Urbom understood how power works in such a setting. Instead of seeing power as a limited sum in which any power he ceded to others would make his power less, he saw power as an expandable sum. The more willing he was to be influenced by others, the more likely they were to be influenced by him. The consideration he gave to the concerns of others did not lead to disrespect. It led to greater honor and influence for him and his office.

Those of us who are leaders in the church are likely to have a more faithful and fruitful season of leadership if we take to heart this lesson about power that Judge Urbom so well illustrated.


This article is taken from remarks by Lovett Weems to a gathering celebrating his tenure as founding director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. The event was held on September 28, 2017 at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Watch a video of these remarks.

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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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