The Autocrat: The Destruction of a Good Team

Autocrat Destroy Good TeamUnfortunately, it is not unusual for those who work for Christian organizations to fall under the destructive leadership of an autocratic boss. As Christians we often have the tendency to believe suffering is a necessary sign of following Christ.

But, autocratic bosses should be stopped, not coddled.

“Self-serving leaders use the trust and authority that accrues to them to help themselves.”[1]

“Autocratic” leaders, as Herrington calls highly authoritarian bosses, rather than seeking the good of the sheep, of whom they are given charge, are self-focused. Their posture is one of self-serving in their decision-making and workplace relationships.

Why, Why, Why

Commonly, autocratic leaders seek to control those in their employ by fear.

Amy Edmondson, a business management expert and author, suggests that many leaders believe that the use of “fear increases control.” And, in their view, control increases productivity. But Edmondson says those who use fear use it unwisely to gain “certainty and predictability”. [2]

The goal for any leader should be to build a group of God-gifted individuals into a team that finds the best solutions for the services they provide in the redemption of God’s world.

But according to her study, the autocratic leaders’ desire for better performance from those under their authority is actually unsatisfied as they create psychologically unsafe environments for interaction and learning.[3]

If a leader wants to build a team, take advantage of his employees’ giftedness, and seek their buy-in, he will be sorely disappointed if he rules in fear. Where team members experience psychological safety – a state of knowing they can share ideas openly without negative repercussions – there is growth and production.

The autocratic leader may believe it takes “forceful advocacy to bring others along,” rather than welcoming the ideas and abilities of those under him. But it has the opposite effect.[4]

The authoritative boss leads by forcing subordinates to do what he deems best to do either through manipulation or fear. Because of the leader’s position of authority employees fear reprimand for any misstep when responding to these destructive managers.

Therefore, they will keep their good ideas to themselves and seek to stay under the abusive leader’s radar. The boss has lost the opportunity to build a better product or service.

Autocratic Dependency

Herrington, Creech, and Taylor describe a highly authoritative leader named “Steve” who felt that, like Moses, he was “responsible to get a vision for his church from God and deliver that vision to the people. In his view, the church members were responsible for accepting it and making it happen.”[5]

Steve’s authoritarian leadership created much dissention and in the end, he lost his position as senior pastor.

Herrington argues, “Emotional dependence on others drives the autocratic leader. Others are there to serve the leader’s purpose.[6] Many would assume that this kind of leader was quite independent (seeming to have little concern for those under his authority), but according to Herrington, the autocratic leader is driven by controlling those under his authority to selfish ends and is therefore dependent on them to meet his “needs.”

Blame Displacement

In addition, autocratic leaders, being self-focused, often either fail to consider or are fearful of admitting their own failures and practice “blame displacement.”

One abusive leader, under whom I served, when challenged for his failure to protect those under his care immediately blamed a manager for what he was ultimately responsible.

Herrington defines this as, “the human tendency to look outward for explanations rather than inward.”[7] Blame is often placed on those under authority and this adds to an unsafe environment and broken relationships.

Patrick Lencioni argues that,

“Team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust.”[8]

For the interaction of pastor, assistant pastor, and congregation to be truly edifying, a mutual empathy for weakness and failure must be nurtured through the “confession of sins” to one another.[9] Edmondson suggests that when blame is placed on others when things do not go right, “productive discussion of the issues is less likely to occur” and “we begin to think less of others, and then may be less motivated to engage wholeheartedly in teaming with them.[10]

Humility should be the motto of every leader. He should think about it when he rises in the morning, when he goes to work, when the sun goes down. Though he is called to lead with vision and decisiveness, the leader needs to be continually on his guard to retain the self-awareness that he too is a sinful individual and may be wrong at points.

In admitting those wrongs he will both learn and build a team that can come alongside to provide excellent service to others.

A Functioning Body

A lack of team perspective fails to give rightful attention to the uniqueness with which God has created each person. The Apostle Paul, speaking to a church torn apart by various moral deficiencies draws a picture of the congregation from the perspective of the functioning of the human body. He says,

“For the body does not consist of one member but of many.”[11]

Paul argues that every person’s giftedness is necessary for the correct functioning of the church just as it is for the human body. An autocratic leader fails to encourage this kind of necessary cooperative effort because he thinks he may lose control.

The fear of losing control drives an autocratic pastor to place blame outside his own attitudes and actions. In response, those who serve under his leadership and authority are likely to reserve the use of their gifts due to lacking psychological safety.

The environment created by this brokenness is less than conducive for the “building up the body of Christ” as described by the Apostle Paul.[12]


[1] Herrington, The Leader’s Journey, 52–53.

[2] Edmondson, Teaming, 508–509.

[3] Ibid., 1163–1164.

[4] Ibid., 4810–4811.

[5] Herrington, The Leader’s Journey, 541–542.

[6] Ibid., 589.

[7] Ibid., 804–805.

[8] Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, 188.

[9] ESV New Classic Reference Bible, v. James 5:16.

[10] Edmondson, Teaming, 1277–1280.

[11] ESV New Classic Reference Bible, v. 1 Corinthians 12:12–31.

[12] Ibid., v. Ephesians 4:12.

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