Sinking a Christian Organization: Normal Leadership Failures

Kets de Vries pic

Manfred Kets de Vries

There once was a frog swimming happily in a river. He heard a voice call out from the riverbank. As he came closer he saw it was a scorpion. The scorpion asked the frog for a ride across the river.

The frog, knowing scorpions, refused saying, “Scorpions sting. How do I know you won’t kill me?” But, the scorpion calmly suggested, “Why would I do that? If I kill you, I will also die as I cannot swim.”

The frog, seeing the logic in the scorpions argument, allowed the scorpion to climb on him and began to cross the river. However, when he had gone nearly halfway, he felt a sting on his back. Turning he saw the scorpion removing his stinger.

The frog croaked, “You fool! Now we will both die. Why did you do such a thing?”

The scorpion admitted, “I couldn’t help myself. It’s my character.”

We normally understand Character to be deeply engrained. Sometimes even thinking there is no way to free ourselves (or others) from character traits that are destructive. However, the grace of God is able to transform our hearts and actions to be a sweet aroma rather than awful stench.

Manfred Kets de Vries

One of the finest research consultants in the psychology of business management is a Frenchman named Manfred Kets de Vries. He told the frog and scorpion story in his book, Leader on the Couch. He has written more than forty books and directs one of the largest leadership development centers in the world. My early introduction to his research was in the area of abusive leadership of which he has written much.

However, Kets de Vries has worked hard to speak to “normal” problems of leadership as well. In this blog, I want to share some of his research as it speaks to our own failings as leaders. Though we may not be compulsively abusive and manipulative in our leadership, we can be very ineffective due to a variety of character traits.

Though our characters may be deeply ingrained, those who desire to serve the Lord in a leadership capacity need the humility to see their failings and seek His character changing work.

With multiple degrees and experience in psychology and business, Kets de Vries describes several toxic leadership styles in Leader on the Couch. Though he discusses at length narcissistic and anti-social leaders – unfortunately common toxins among leaders – he names several less psychotic leadership destroyers.

Go Along and Get Along:

  • The Dramatist

The dramatist is “constantly in search of support, reassurance, and protection” according to Kets de Vries [pages 60-61]. They are a fragile lot and very effected by criticism or disapproval. And they tend to be insincere. Wouldn’t you be if you wanted the approval and assurance of others?

He says they are likable and charming and so other people want to initially work with them. However, their lack of competence and attention span make them underachievers.

  • The Dependent

Just as the name implies, the Dependent feels “helpless, inadequate, powerless, and ineffectual.” They function best when supported by others and have issues with anxiety. They are the downers of the organization [page 71].

They do not initiate projects and are happier having others take the lead. They will not give their opinions as they feel the need to please everyone.

  • The Self-Defeater

The inferior Self-Defeater happily accepts the blame for that which they are not responsible. They are “drawn to relationships where they’re subject to humiliation, suffering, and distress.”

They might be good followers because they are usually honest, ethical, and have a sense of humility. But, they are attracted at times to mean bosses. And they will often fail to finish tasks though they have the ability.

  • The Depressant

The Depressant is just like he sounds: depressed. Kets de Vries says, “They see themselves as inconsequential at best and anywhere from reproachable to contemptible at worst. Believing that they deserve to be criticized and derogated, they indulge in acts of self-denial, self-punishment, and self-torment.” [p. 95]

The Depressant does not make much of a leader as they “overestimate their difficulties and underestimate their capabilities.” They need constant assurance that they are okay. And, they can be very critical of their subordinates and fail to motivate them to use their gifts and abilities.

  • The Imposter

Some types of Imposters believe they are “sailing under false colors.” They may be very successful leaders, but they feel as though they are frauds.

Kets de Vries tells the story of a senior executive who was admitted as a young man into an Ivy League school – he believed it to be a “lucky break” and a result of an error by admissions. Over time he excelled and reach the level of CEO of a major corporation. However, he overwhelmed with questions of his ability to truly lead the company.

Despite having turned around a global arm of the company and extraordinary capabilities, he spent many sleepless nights questioning every decision he made. He was “haunted by nightmares” and developed an alcohol problem.

Not So Get Along:

  • The Controller

The Controller is “rigid, inflexible, and lacking in spontaneity.” Their judgmentalism and joylessness make them a bore to work with. They generally are good at being in submission to authority, though have a rebellious streak, but they are autocratic and condemning to subordinates.

Therefore, the Controllers will often continue in their positions of authority unhindered by their own bosses. Their boss cannot believe what the subordinates say about the Controller because he or she is always quite respectful to him. The Controller has them hoodwinked.

Unlike the Dramatist, Self-Defeater, or possibly Dependent, who are very sensitive to their failings, the Controller is not likely to respond to confrontation.

  • The Detached

There are actually two types of Detached personalities: The Avoidant and the Schizoid. Both have great difficulty relating to other people. The Schizoid appears to be completely uninterested in developing personal relationships whereas the Avoidant, though desiring relationship, actively seeks detachment due to self-protection. “They are painfully alert to the minutest signals of rejection from others, interpreting even the most neutral events as evidence of disdain or ridicule.” [p. 86]

Kets de Vries says they normally stick to low-visibility positions in an organization. Detached employees are unable to build networks, something necessary to develop the gifts and reach of the organization.

  • The Abrasive

Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS, is used as a classic example of an Abrasive leader. He once said, “The best political weapon is the weapon of terror. Cruelty commands respect. Men may hate us. But we don’t ask for their love: only for their fear.” [p. 103]

The once CEO of the Sunbeam corporation, Al Dunlap, believed employees were expendable and the only goal of the corporation was making money for the shareholder. He oversaw massive layoffs and the firing of workers who had been with the company many years because they just were not not worth what he thought they should be.

Condescending, belligerent, and disrespectful are good descriptions of the Abrasive. They are authoritarian, harsh, cruel, and vindictive.

  • The Paranoid

Forrest Mars, the son of Mars founder, Frank, was paranoid. When he founded a separate company called Ethel M. Chocolates, he had two-way mirrors in his office so he could watch his employees carefully.

Paranoids are suspicious and distrust other people to such an extent they are consumed by it. They are very touchy and apprehensive, “magnifying even minor slights into major offenses.” [page 111]

According to Kets de Vries, the Paranoid pays “insufficient attention to the bigger picture, seeing hidden meanings and secret coalitions everywhere.” [page 117]

This is Us

Each of these types of leaders could be me. Our fears, desire to control the swirl of events that surround us, or void of relational capabilities can run our ministry into the ground.

But, nearly all of these are fixable problems. It takes humility and self-awareness to see microbes of these toxins running through our veins. This may come through the loving, or not so loving, critique of a coworker, subordinate or boss. If we can hear those voices we can seek the aid of God’s Holy Spirit and even possibly the counsel of those who know our psychosis, to become the leaders God desires his people to be.


Kets de Vries, Manfred F. R.. The Leader on the Couch: A Clinical Approach to Changing People and Organizations. Wiley.

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