For those who have read or are reading “Willow Creek: Loyalty and the Oppressed,” this is intended to help you understand some of the common mistakes in interpreting abuse.
Lundy Bancroft in his seminal work on abuse begins his book, “Why Does He Do That?” with,
“I have been working with angry and controlling men for fifteen years as a counselor, evaluator, and investigator, and have accumulated a wealth of knowledge from the two thousand or more cases with which I have been involved.”
I consider his book one of the most helpful texts in combatting public misunderstanding of abuse out there. Below are some of the myths he exposes about abuse. I have edited some for the sake of application to my experience and research on toxic leadership.
- Abusers were abused as children.
Though there are those who are toxic in their leadership who have been abused as children, it is not consistent with research that this is either the norm or necessary. Though we certainly learn from our environment and some toxic leaders have learned at the feet of the best abusers (either as a child or employee), it is not the background that creates the abuser.
- The Toxic Leader’s target makes him angry – the target has created the monster.
This is simply a form of blame shifting. No one makes someone else mean. We are all responsible for our own meanness. Remember that an abuser can blame shift and “can craft an excuse to fit any of his controlling behaviors.” [page 28] Mind you, he will shift the blame masterfully…beware.
- The leader has an “explosive personality” and must “learn to be less aggressive.”
Bancroft often hears from targets, “How come he can be so nice to everyone else but he has to treat me like dirt?” Abusive people do not have anger problems. Bancroft has found they have plenty of self-control. They are very intentional about their explosions. They do not need “anger management” courses. “An abuser almost never does anything that he himself considers morally unacceptable.” [page 34]
- He has a mental illness for which he needs medication.
Bancroft notes, “Their value system is unhealthy, not their psychology.” [page 38] Research has shown that even the most violent abusers have a low rate of mental illness. Bancroft argues their attitudes are the problem. They are “entitled” and therefore seek to control in order to get what they want from those around them.
- He has low self-esteem.
Actually, it is quite the opposite. “The self-esteem myth is rewarding for an abuser, because it gets his partner, his therapist, and others to cater to him emotionally.” [page 43] How do you build someone’s self-esteem? Give them more entitlements. Toxic leaders love it.
- “He has poor communication, conflict-resolution, and stress-management skills. He needs training.“
Bancroft has found abusive individuals have “normal abilities in conflict resolution, communication and assertiveness when they choose to use them.” [page 44] They will resolve conflicts, communicate and assert themselves in other spheres of life. They are simply choosing to abuse in particular situations like the office, home, or playing field.
- Substance abuse made him do it.
Bancroft suggests, “Alcohol cannot create an abuser, and sobriety cannot cure one.” Again, it is an attitude, not drug inducement that creates the monster. It may exacerbate the abuse, but it does not create it.
No More Coddling
It is important to recognize that all these myths point to easy fixes. But, abusers are not easily fixed.
It is rare they change their stripes and generally only after being held accountable for their actions.
Bancroft describes in his workshops the effect confrontations and arrests by authority figures have on abusers. Shane Waldron, former Director of the Christian ministry to survivors of domestic violence and their perpetrators, notes the only success the ministry has had with abusers changing has been when the partner (target) leaves the relationship either in separation or divorce.
In my own research and experience this is also true for toxic leaders. Though there is a time and place for “hanging in there,” generally the only way a toxic leader will change is when he is held accountable by the organization and there are no longer subordinates bowing in his presence.
Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men (Berkley Books, 2002).