We are coming to the cycle of American politics where many of us are sick of it all — we are tired of the exaggerations, of the frantic search for gaffes and of a broken system of federal government that seems incapable of getting much done. In the midst of that weariness, I suggest a remedy that is plentiful in Waco, even while it is scarce in Washington.

What we need are leaders who seek to wield influence rather than mere power. Though often confused, the two are very different. Raw power is the ability to make someone do what you want — to force or prevent an outcome. Influence, on the other hand, is the ability to convince people what is right and what they should do. 

Our national leaders, in both parties, do not seem inclined toward the art of influence anymore. Congress is deadlocked, time and again, because the sides have taken to their corners and rely on mere power: procedural tricks and symbolic votes that go nowhere. Rarely do we see a leader rise, identify a common value and forge a consensus as to a way forward, even if it is difficult. This was the gift of Lincoln, Kennedy and Reagan, but it is a lost art.

Here in Waco, there is a good example of the strength that comes from prudent use of influence. Ken Starr came to Baylor University as a potentially divisive figure after a decade of division at the school, but all indications are he has been a healing force and has moved the university forward and away from those troubles, though challenges still remain. The secret of his success, and an example to our national leaders, is that he has done this through influence rather than power. Importantly, he has on several occasions convinced the constituencies of the university to join him in a new focus, rather than forcing them to simply accept a decision made at the executive level. As president of Baylor, his hands are on the levers of power, and he could exercise them, but he has relied on a more Christian and far stronger approach. He convinces potential opponents of the value of a joint effort, and they walk forward together.

It probably should not surprise us that a premier appellate lawyer like President Starr would have that gift.  After all, an appellate lawyer, standing before the judges in their robes, has no power at all, no ability to force an outcome — only the opportunity to convince the judges of what is right and good and true. The appellate lawyer must advocate for an outcome while showing deference to his audience and listening carefully to their concerns. It is a job that hones the precise trait we now see in action.

It is fair to call such an approach Christian, too, as Jesus eschewed power while exemplifying the use of influence. Two thousand years later, that influence still reverberates. Contrast that with the exercise of pure power: Nicolae Couescescu was dictator of Romania until 1989 when he was hung by his people. There is already nothing left of his legacy. Influence lasts; power does not.

Baylor is blessed not only at the top but in the professorial ranks and the student body with those gifted and inclined toward influence rather than power. It would be good for our nation, the state of Texas and the city of Waco if some of them were to seek public office and change the sad ways of our nation’s politics.

A member of the Baylor Law School faculty for a decade, Mark Osler is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota. A graduate of the College of William and Mary and Yale Law School, he is a former federal prosecutor whose work has consistently confronted the problem of inflexibility in sentencing and corrections. As lead counsel he won the case of Spears vs United States (2009) in the U.S. Supreme Court, where the court held sentencing judges can categorically reject the 100:1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine in the federal sentencing guidelines.


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