Graham, one of my interviewees when researching toxic organizational leadership, expressed dismay at his “naiveté” in believing there would be “healing and reconciliation” when he was involved in a confrontation with his CEO. His organization had been founded and built into an international mercy ministry by the CEO.
Having carefully planned a humble approach with the aid of two other high-profile, well-respected Christian leaders, he believed the confrontation of the CEO for multiple sexual harassment charges would be received in humility. He expected in the end the confrontation team “would hug and get it done!” Graham’s experience ended up in the loss of his job and he was “blackballed” by the CEO as he sought a new position.
Harris & Putting the Fun Back in Dysfunction
Harris told the board of a large Christian organization when interviewing for the CEO position, “I bet the most important relationship in any non-profit organization is the relationship between the CEO and the board chairman. They either push each other to a higher level and bring the organization with it, or they can drag the whole organization down into the swamp.”
He said he had no idea how badly it was going to go between he and the chairman. Harris was told repeatedly, prior to joining the organization, their board was dysfunctional. During the interview process, a charming member of the board said, “You probably heard that we have a dysfunctional board?” He told the board, “Yes, actually I have heard that, but I like to put the fun back in dysfunction.” Unfortunately, despite his extraordinary success in two other major, international mission organizations, the fun was not put back in the dysfunction.
The ideas Harris put to his vision to bring the organization out of its humdrum existence were viewed as an affront to the board chairman. Because Harris’ ideas did not come from him, he would not accept them and went on the offensive to destroy Harris’ ministry.
Isaac & the Cycler
Isaac experienced aggressive toxicity in the final months of his ministry with an educational mission he served. Isaac said he had several meetings with the CEO and the meetings went through a “cycle…of flattery and guilt and threatening…He would flatter us – tell us how great we were – then talk about our obligation. Then he would talk about our supporters – what would they think – then [finish] with threats.”
When Isaac resigned, he continued to work part-time for the mission, seeking to help the organization while they sought a replacement. Because Isaac was beginning work with another organization, the CEO sent a letter to the immigration authorities at the airport asking them to stop Isaac and his family’s entry to the country on their return from a short trip to the United States. Though unsure the letter would have had any impact on their travel plans, Isaac explained they missed a connecting flight and flew into the country through another city, thereby circumventing the immigration at the local airport unintentionally.
Adam & the Wives
Adam, a missionary in the developing world, recounted an experience when his wife had purchased plane tickets for their trip home for furlough and the CEO’s wife “demanded that she change the flight.” Adam’s wife responded, “I’m sorry, I can’t.” Adam said, “That was the moment they realized we weren’t always going to say yes.” The CEO and his wife’s treatment of Adam and his family changed after that. He observed that future conflict “had to travel through my wife.” He said, “She took the brunt of all these incidences and I believe that they knew we were peace loving people…but, I really believed they used that against us, because they knew…like a bully they can get away with it.”
Eugene & His “Friend”
Though Eugene “felt like quitting,” he said, “If I accepted the position of Senior Vice President, I was responsible to the organization as well as responsible to my friend, [the CEO].” He added, “The organization has to be one of the leading international missions, and I just felt like, [the CEO] is bringing this mission down.”
Though he had heard of the CEO’s failure to interact well with those under his authority, he believed, as a friend there could be a positive outcome to his confrontation. He was willing to take the risk of confronting the CEO with the hope there would be a positive outcome. Within days of his confrontation of the CEO, Eugene was told to give over his laptop, credit card, and cell phone immediately. He said, “That was a huge slap in the face.” He said, “I couldn’t believe he could be that cold-hearted.”
Each of the participants in my study had been involved in confrontations with their bosses. All but one were fired or felt it was necessary to resign because of the negative impact the leader had on their families. Only one outlasted her boss.
I asked each what effects there were to them and their families. They each described emotional, physical, and spiritual effects they experienced. Harris summed up the common results of the participants’ experiences when he said, “I don’t like to use inflated language, but some of these things really do have catastrophic consequences for an individual and their family.” Like having a root canal without the tooth being fixed.
Effects on Others
Eugene spoke of the impact his forced resignation had on those who depended on him. He said,
Here are 250 missionaries you have been basically counseling for seven years, intimately involved with their lives…for some of them, I was the one key person on the way to some future they were looking toward. And, all of a sudden, that all disappeared. That was very hard. Basically, we had to trust the Lord knew what He was doing and that he would take care of those people too because it wasn’t our responsibility any more.
After Eugene’s firing, the organization was unable to fill his position because, “Nobody wanted the job. They figured, ‘If Eugene is his best friend and can get fired, I don’t want that.’”
Physical and Emotional Effects
Though Adam and his family resigned from the organization in 2012, he said, “The consequences are still unfolding for our family.” When he first resigned he “felt exhilarated, liberated.” While they finished out their term, Adam said he “enjoyed [the country] in a way that I had not up to that point.”
He remembers watching his “family cry all the way to the airport,” knowing he had made the right decision but it was very difficult. Graham added that he and a few of his closest colleagues who were fired suffered “various levels of depression” over the years since.
One church employee, Susan, described her migraines and depression. Adam says he was “emotionally depressed for at least two years after” leaving. He said he was “physically irresponsible which goes with depression; Eat all I can. Drink all I can. Sleep all I can. Stay inside all I can.”
Considering his own difficulties following his firing, Eugene also suffered physically. He explained, “I had a really hard time getting over it. Physically, I got sick…I lost my voice. I couldn’t get a job.” He lost his insurance and so was unable to work with a speech therapist. Casandra pointed out that Ben had hives for a long time after leaving, adding, “Lots of wounds of internal stress from it all.”
Many people have expressed concern and encouragement, but Harris related the analogy,
“You can tell a beautiful woman how beautiful and wonderful she is, but if she feels trashed as a child, she’s like, ‘I don’t care what accomplishments I may have had.’ I was told to get out and stay out and my life has been hard ever since.’”
At this point, Harris does not see an end in sight. He likens the experience to losing a child, “Because something like this was wrongly taken from you…you get past it, you get through it, but I don’t think you get over it.”
Where Now Brown Cow
As a leader of a major Christian organization, Harris had many speaking engagements that were cancelled. He said, “There is a sense in which I don’t have any value. I’m not part of the community. I’m a commodity and the value of this commodity just dropped to zero and I’ve been spit out.”
He said, “There’s a sense of shock, denial,” referring to the stages of grief. Harris does not “feel the passion for world evangelization” he did once and for which he worked so hard. He said, “I have people who want me to mentor them and I have nothing to say. I’m rung out.”
Frances recalls “feeling a bit lost as to what was next.” As she went on unemployment following her firing, “There was a sense of hurt as I’ve tried to ponder it at different times.”
The Buck Just Stops
Eugene was on unemployment for eight months, though all the while seeking a job. Though Frances has an exceptional background and experiences in missions and leadership, getting another job took several months and the new job involved separation from her family for long stretches of time.
She was in her late 50s and she said, “Most organizations are not going to hire someone at that stage of life.” Frances noted the “financial fallout was pretty serious” with a “reduction in income [that] was pretty severe.”
Harris, despite receiving a larger salary than he and his family either needed or wanted, was financially worse off than when he joined the organization. He explained that he “had to hire a lawyer to get out” and spent a great deal of money and received no severance. He said he ended up with credit card debt and bills he could not pay. He went on, “I’ve never ever had financial trouble in my life…I always had good jobs.” Several years later, he is still without a full-time position.
When Ben and Casandra returned to the United States, they “were very fragile for a time.” They had “hot and cold responses from different churches [that supported them] in terms of understanding and encouragement.” Ben said, “Some churches very coldly listened to what we had to say; ‘Well thank you for your service. God bless you as you go.’”
The effects from the battles with toxic leaders are heart-breaking. Few people understand until they have experienced it and even then, the church is so often more concerned with caring for the toxic one, they fail to care for the downtrodden.
Each of the stories shared above caused real-life trauma for the victims. They suffer many of the symptoms of trauma that have long-lasting effects.
May the God of all comfort, care for and uphold the targets of toxic leadership.