One of the occupational hazards of someone who studies and writes about abuse is an ever-present vigilance – often overdeveloped. I am very attentive to leadership failure. I can find it under every rock.
But I guess that is my job so others can think about other things maybe more productive.
Let me share some of those rocks under which I have found toxic leaders in my various interviews and experience. There are a number of indicators of abusive leadership and it is important to be able to diagnose toxic leadership and root it out from your organization.
Because it is nearly guaranteed toxic leaders will kill your organization if left unchecked.
This is meant as a simple list and it is not conclusive. But it can give you something to consider if you are wondering if you serve a toxic leader:
1. Lack of Humility
Recently, a blogger listed the various evangelical leaders who have fallen by the way-side. He noted that each one lacked humility. “He cannot be wrong.” This is my warning to survivors of domestic violence or leadership abuse: run from those who do not have the humility to admit they are wrong. They are wrong at times no matter how often they tell you someone else is wrong.
2. Focus on Control
From micro-managing to mind-control, leaders who abuse God-given authority want to control everything. In Christian organizations control is often hidden behind the “Christianese” of despising gossip. As one ministry under-shepherd said, “He had to control the narrative.” One Christian business leader (of whom I have heard testimonies) makes it his biggest priority to root out gossip from the organization.
The Lord speaks against gossip. But his hatred of gossip is in one direction. He is entitled to be free from being challenged for wrongdoing. If someone goes to him directly they are either torn apart (Matthew 7) or their complaint is ignored. Where do you go from there?
Wherever you go, it is then considered gossip by these authoritarians.
3. He is the Center
Closely related to number one is the leader who always takes the credit. Rarely is the leader really the reason something got done. Maybe he directed as a good leader should. Maybe it was his idea.
But it is usually the minions who are doing the hard lifting. The abusive leader makes it very clear he is the center of all that is good in the organization. We all want praise but these leaders are seemingly driven by little else.
And, watch out if they do not get it.
Closely related to the first and second is the leader who deflects criticism by sending you in another direction. Someone else must be wrong if the leader is always right. Right? Often they create the environment that there has to be a fall-guy. There must be someone else to blame.
Often blame-shifting comes out when the leader talks about the large percentage of resignations from the organization. “They just weren’t supportive of our mission…They just couldn’t handle the hard work…They just couldn’t handle Africa…”
You might want to actually talk to some of those people to get the real story.
5. No Team is a Good Team
As a musician friend of mine noted not long ago, the conductor’s job is to help the orchestra (or choir or band) use their talents to the best of their ability to serve the audience. It is not his job to create a cult of self. The focus should never be on the conductor.
Good leaders build teams that help each other multiply their effectiveness by enjoying and using one another’s giftedness. Toxic leaders are (back to number 2) the center of their universe. And they want to be the center of yours as well.
6. Image, Image, Image
In our day of marketing genius, this may be a bit harder to get. We want to get our ministries out there so we let people know what we do well; that can include some pretty professional marketing. But those who have been part of a mission organization that practiced this will understand.
One Christian psychologist put it this way:
I often think of a narcissistic pastor who served in a rural setting in a very small church, who by all accounts was diligent and godly but who constantly compared his church to other churches with an attitude of judgment, lauding his church’s orthodoxy while quietly condemning other local pastors. 1
There are many mission groups or organizations out there that are doing God-glorifying work. When a leader is constantly comparing his ministry to others and touting that his organization is the very best, there is a problem going back to number 1.
In fact, maybe he believes his organization is the only one doing the work of God. It is ego-gratifying and it will eat you alive. And it fails to recognize the big team of God that is out there seeking to do His work.
7. Sweetness & Hurt
Not all toxic leaders practice this bizarre behavior but it is extremely confusing to those who do not recognize abuse. One moment the leader will go off on a subordinate, tearing him to pieces…the next they are sweetness and light. And usually with no acknowledgement that anything happened at all.
This is an indicator of “borderline” personality disorder. It is manipulative and destructive.
8. Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire
It is really hard for most employees or church members to believe: There are “Christian” leaders out there that lie through their teeth.
It took several years for us to finally realize that our mission leader was intentionally lying to us. We gave all sorts of justifications for his failure to “remember” what he had told us before. We even calmed others with justifications when they pointed out his lies to them. But it finally came down to him covering his own entitled self with lies. This is not normal behavior!
Run or Confront?
So, those are some indicators of toxic leadership. If your boss is practicing these, have another vocation waiting in the wings and send out that memo. You can run or confront.
If you want to see repentance, your leader will need to be seriously challenged. They do not change through soft-pedling their wrongs. If you care for the organization and the work it is doing, help the organization root out the toxic leader.
1. Vrbicek, Interview by Benjamin. “The Many Faces of Narcissism in the Church.” ChristianityToday.com. Accessed April 15, 2020. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/march/chuck-degroat-narcissism-comes-church.html.