Toxic leadership, in churches and businesses

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Rob Asghar, writing in Forbes, offers some noteworthy insights about organizations, accountability, and game-changing leaders. Asghar calls Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill Church, the "Enron of American churches":

In life, blowhards and bullies will inevitably rise up and do their thing. In the field of management, they tend to rise up and do it with extra frequency and impact. And in religious organizations, they can often do it with maximum impact, because the whole enterprise is usually founded on the notion of absolute authority....

Nondenominational megachurches... often can be free-wheeling, Wild West-style operations, unencumbered by national bureaucracies. That frees them to respond to grow quickly ... or to grow malignantly.

Gautaum Mukunda, author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, has noted that most leaders in most industries are "filtered" by a sorting-and-screening system specific to their profession. But a few are "unfiltered," and may get into a major leadership job without first being scrutinized as closely. The latter, unfiltered leaders are what he calls "extreme leaders"--the game changers, for better and for worse. But in most cases, the nutjobs and the geniuses are alike filtered out by the system....

Personality cults end badly, because anyone objective finds themselves mauled by loyalists trying to hold the cult together. (Eric Hoffer's The True Believer remains a pivotal resource for understanding the motivations of cult-type personalities, who often have their entire identities fused into their nation, organization or holy cause.)...

But a number of psychologists have told me that the truly toxic leaders, the ones who manage to cause trouble on the scale of a Driscoll, are tragically irredeemable as managers. Oftentimes, the disciplining process only teaches them new ways to exploit the system while pretending to obey it.

Redemption for these fallen stars, Asghar writes, doesn't happen by getting back in the spotlight but "by finding some way to be of productive service without being in charge of large budgets and large communities." (John Profumo comes to mind as the model of a fallen leader who devoted himself to service and never sought a return to power.)

Asghar confesses "a strong revulsion for the bullying and sociopathy that happen far too often within the world of management" -- particularly in the spiritual realm. Why do these sorts of situations happen again and again?

In another article about Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, Asghar writes that toxic followers enable toxic leaders:

Some years ago, former Los Angeles Times religion writer William Lobdell wrote about his experiences covering the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church. Lobdell shared that what broke his spirit wasn't the way the church leaders refused to see the truth, but rather the way the ordinary laypersons refused to see it-how they shouted down peers bold enough to speak honestly about their traumas, how they sought to rationalize any evil done by their beloved leaders.

That's one crucial aspect of the link between toxic leaders and followers. In the case of megachurches, there's also the appeal of protecting one's part in a big, impressive show -- like being a regular at the cool club that everyone talks about. The star of the show is usually an uber-charismatic, dramatic salesperson. Like the brash and humorous Driscoll.

Narcissism sells. People rally around it, even when they should know better. But as Jim Collins showed in From Good to Great, the leaders of the healthiest and strongest organizations ("Level 5 leaders") are generally the antithesis of the high-drama, high-celebrity leader.

"We had no idea what was going on" isn't a valid excuse on the part of followers in most cases of toxic leaders. Many followers too eagerly forgive a toxic leader's obvious discretions because they're charmed by the leader's offsetting charms. Until it's too late.

This Phil Johnson sermon is about the prosperity gospel, but these paragraphs are a broader indictment of modern evangelicalism and could as easily apply to non-charismatic megachurch leaders and the parishoners who enable them:

Unless you live in total isolation and never read any news about the church and our testimony to the wider world, you must be aware that the evangelical movement worldwide is currently undergoing a doctrinal and philosophical meltdown of catastrophic proportions. By any measure you could possibly employ, the evangelical movement right now is more backslidden and more spiritually bankrupt than medieval Catholicism was just before the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. The evangelical movement of our generation has become a monstrosity. Doctrinal, moral, and political corruption are the rule rather than the exception -- and some of the largest and most visible evangelical and charismatic churches today are populated with people who absolutely love to have it that way. They don't want to hear any criticism or complaint about worldliness or bad doctrine. Their religion is all about self-aggrandizement, and they will not tolerate anyone who points that out.

Churches worldwide are full of people who aren't the least bit interested in scripture, or doctrine, or truthfulness. They just want to have a good experience and feel good about themselves. More than that, they want to hear that God feels good about them, and that He exists to do their bidding. And when someone comes along with any kind of critique that questions what they are doing or what they are teaching, that interrupts the illusion of well-being they have cultivated so carefully. So the average evangelical nowadays is tolerant of just about everything that happens in the church. The only thing evangelicals cannot abide is someone who keeps calling the church back to biblical faithfulness. Discernment is the one spiritual gift no one seems to want to practice or even hear about.

MORE: An explanation of toxic leadership, particularly in the political realm: Political Ponerology by Andrew Lobaczewski.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 19, 2014 10:01 AM.

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