Let’s say a group of 40 current and former missionaries sent a letter to you as a member of the Board of Directors for a Christian organization. In that letter, the missionaries complained that the leadership of the organization treated employees and nationals harshly and lacked integrity and accountability. Not only did these particular missionaries complain, but there had been a history of complaints against the founders and directors of the mission.
What would you do?
In our mission organization, nothing.
Though the board was asked to contact those who had signed the letter for their own personal stories of abuse, the board contacted only one individual and asked him to meet with the board and the leadership. Together, in one, happy room. He respectfully declined.
The extent of board dysfunction and lack of accountability is shocking. Boards of organizations are normally given authority and responsibility for keeping their CEOs and chairmen accountable. Yet, among the Christian organization employees who were under abusive leadership with whom I spoke, only one board did something about the toxic leader.
Other boards with oversight of the participants in my study either did little or took steps to remove the leader when it was long overdue. By then, many subordinates were already deeply injured and traumatized. One interviewee, Eugene, said his board took more than two years to remove the CEO. Graham’s took approximately ten years. One of the toxic leaders, a board chairman, has not been removed from his board and one toxic chairman continues in his position.
Following my resignation from a Christian mission organization, one stakeholder told me the organization did more harm than good. Yet, when confronted by an employee, one of the directors under the toxic CEO suggested the leadership had done so much good, they should not be challenged.
What clouds the vision of boards or others in authority such that they refuse their responsibility to remove leaders who create so much damage?
What stops them from taking a stand against, what many victims would call, oppression? There are a number of reasons I have found in my research.
One reason for the failure of boards to practice good oversight indicated by my research is members are often hand-picked by the leaders, particularly if those leaders are the founders of the organization. Having worked on choosing board members for my own organization, I would suggest the pull to find board members who understand, agree with, and buy into the vision of the organization is strong. Leaders want unity. Sometimes at any cost.
However, when the prospective board member’s agreement on all issues is expected by the founder or leader, there is likely to be trouble. For growth and effective ministry, a board of directors should not be expected to agree with the founder on all issues and should have the freedom to challenge ideas they consider unhelpful to ministry. And they should truly have a say in implementing their decisions.
I would suggest that prospective board members should be chosen that buy into the vision, but are those who can graciously challenge ideas.
Board members may feel beholden to the leader for their position. Sometimes, the leader is a member of the board and, as Mulvey and Padilla suggest, it is more difficult for the board to remove one of their own.
In my experience with toxic leadership, three of the eight board members in my organization were the founders of the ministry. Those board members who disagreed with how the organization was being directed resigned from the board rather than go to battle with old friends. Jean Lipman-Blumen quite accurately described these kinds of boards, saying they have a “clubby composition.”
A truly active board and the humility of the director can do much to encourage honest disagreement. Active in that the board makes decisions for the direction of the ministry…they are not spoon-fed decisions already made by the director. But, for this to be practiced, the director must, in humility, give over power and control, something most who abuse their power have little interest in doing.
The question is often asked: Is the leader doing more for the greater good than harm?
As noted in research and our own experience, abusive leaders are often very talented and gifted at manipulation. Those, the leader needs to impress, like the board, are usually impressed. Boards often do not listen to the subordinates because they have seen many good things come from the leader’s bag of tricks.
To answer the above question, they will often say, “Absolutely! Look at the many programs he has developed and the wonderful fundraising.”
But, there is a stream of employees leaving the organization and instead of listening to the voices of those leaving, they are falling back on a belief there is greater good. Effective and safe exit interviews are very helpful in battling board biases.
Safe Boards [Not]
Boards are often not a safe place to seek relief in toxic organizations. When a board member traveled to visit the organization with which I worked, a friend of mine sought the board member out to explain the dysfunction of the leadership. After listening to the employee’s story, he went directly to the leader and recommended the employee be fired.
One of my interviewees, Eugene sent a document outlining a plan for the CEO to use his gifts more effectively and rely on his subordinates for areas in which he was not gifted. The CEO sent Eugene’s letter on to the board chairman who recommended Eugene’s firing.
Oftentimes, boards are not safe places for employees to seek help. And in this world of sin, there will always be difficulties. There will never be the perfect board of directors. But, there are ways of preempting toxic strikes by leaders and the board can do much in building an organization that does not allow toxic leadership.
 Chapman, White, and Myra, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, 111.
 Schyns and Hansbrough, When Leadership Goes Wrong, 59.
 Lipman-Blumen, The Allure of Toxic Leaders, 174, Kindle.