Toxic Waste Inside: Creating a Culture for Toxic Leadership

Toxic OrganizationsHow do the church and parachurch organizations create toxic work environments ? If we know the answer to that question, maybe – just maybe – we can save our witness to a watching world from the pit!

Millard Fuller (Habitat for Humanity), Father Kit Cunningham (Roman Catholic priest in Tanzania), Jimmy Swaggart (Assemblies of God), Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill Church), and many others have given the church a black eye. The abuse of Christian leadership has certainly distorted people’s view of Christianity. The failure of humility among abusive leaders has added to the common belief that Christians think they are “holier than thou,” yet are obviously not.

There are a number of books that delve into this topic with fervor including “Toxic Workplace: Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power” and “Transforming Toxic Leaders.” Both books are well researched, but not specifically Christian in perspective. Both books reveal that, “Toxic leaders operate primarily within malleable or hospitable organizational cultures.“[1] In other words, it isn’t just the toxic leader about which we should be concerned, but a workplace culture that is particularly responsive to the abuse of power.

We can focus on ridding our organizations of specific leaders who abuse their power, but if the culture that allowed them, remains the same, there are continued opportunities for a toxic leader to go for the jugular once again.

What are elements of our workplace culture that are conducive to abuse?

Kusy and Holloway (Toxic Workplace) present six “system dynamics” that promote toxicity:

1) The structure changes to accommodate the toxic personality.
2) The organization tolerates the toxicity, provided the individual is productive.
3) The team climate changes when the toxic person is present.
4) The organization’s leaders are unaware of the toxic person’s behavior.
5) Less productive team meetings are tolerated.
6) The organization contributes to the toxic person getting away with counterproductive behaviors.[2]

Common to most of the literature I have read, toxic leaders are allowed to continue spewing poison because their productivity (marketing, organization, etc) is deemed of greater importance than their relational destruction – number 2 above. Common to that same literature is the belief that in the end, toxicity wins and the organization and its witness to Christ loses.

This particular issue 2) is largely responsible for all six “dynamics” listed above if you think about it. 1) Organizations move their toxic leaders somewhere else in the structure so they can keep the leader at work. 3) Despite toxic people always changing the climate – because that is what toxins do – they keep the toxic leader at work. 4) Toxic people know how to be on their good behavior for their superiors, so their bosses fail to see the toxins. 5) Less productive meetings are fine because the leader does so much for the organization! And of course, 6) we can’t possibly get rid of this fine worker!

Interpreting Grace

Sometimes the toxic boss is tolerated because we think grace means allowing the destruction of relationships. We think biblical grace is a get out of jail free card. But, that is not the full biblical meaning of grace. Grace also provides a means of escape from temptation…letting the abuser know their behavior is evil. And when he refuses to respond, put him out. Israel was sent into exile. Other nations were sent up against them. This was also grace. Providing the opportunity to see the damage you are doing and repent.

Nearly every interviewee in my study spoke of showing grace to their leader. And grace was my own theme as I spoke with others in my organization about our toxic leader. Rather than calling them to account for their abusive leadership, we were overlooking their sins that were badly damaging the organization’s witness.

Culture of Authority

Finally, I would like to add that organizations that have a desire for strong leadership (sometimes just nice words for an authoritative leader) provide ample room for abuse. One church sought out a pastor who had strong doctrinal positions. Strong doctrinal convictions are admirable. But, how the pastor applied his convictions without love or humility (1 Corinthians 13) tore the church apart. He had an overwrought sense of authority from on high as the pastor, and beat his congregation to death.

The Phariseeism that Jesus criticized is often driven by strong convictions lacking clear, biblical basis or the humility to recognize it. Laying upon members expectations that are in reality man’s rules – no matter how formed from scripture in principle – creates a culture of authoritarianism ripe for the abuse of leadership. Phariseeism gives leaders permission to control their subordinates, a fundamental element of abuse.[3]

So, What Can Be Done?

That is all the bad news – or least in part. There are things that can be done to provide a toxin-lacking environment where abusive leadership has little opportunity to flourish. Besides the obvious opposites of all the elements listed above, Kusy suggests a number of countermeasures.

He says, “We discovered in our research that organizations that had concrete, behaviorally specific values and adhered to them had few problems with toxicity.“[4] He notes that those specific values can be in written policy or just closely followed in the culture of the organization.

The development of those values and policies that keep leaders (and team members) accountable are forthcoming in future blogs!


[1] Goldman, Alan. Transforming Toxic Leaders (Stanford Business Books) (p. 106). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Kusy, Mitchell. Toxic Workplace!: Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power (Kindle Locations 1091-1097). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

[3] See Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. Berkley Books, 2002.

[4] Kusy, Mitchell. Toxic Workplace!: Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power (Kindle Locations 1505). Wiley. Kindle Edition.


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