I have spoken with many victims of leadership abuse. It is common that they have also faced off with other leaders in the organization who supported the leader reported as toxic.
Relationship with, the power, or charm of the leader created followers and like-minded fools. They became complicit with the abuse though maybe having the best intentions.
But their complicity is from the pit of hell and must be understood and stopped.
Like Israel, we often desire a king and are willing to overlook all the warnings of toxic leadership not unlike God’s warnings to Israel at that time (1 Samuel 8:10-18).
King David, in his Psalm 55, describes the abuser. In these hard words he is describing a supposed “friend”:
His speech was smooth as butter,Psalm 55:21 (ESV)
yet war was in his heart;
his words were softer than oil,
yet they were drawn swords.
But, the Psalm is interesting because David continually goes between singular and plural pronouns for his oppressor(s). At one moment you believe he is speaking of one individual who is tormenting him and the next an army. But, the Psalm is all wrapped around the very personal enemy. . . who is not an enemy but a “friend.”
David’s experience is not unlike our own under toxic leadership in many cases. A leader generally has authority because he or she is granted it by the will of the organization – whether a board or other stakeholders. There are others complicit in his wickedness.
Those who grant authority to someone who oppresses, demeans, throws things, calls others horrible names, and generally acts like a spoiled child are responsible for allowing it to continue.
And it is from the pit of hell.
It matters not what great things the leader has done. If he oppresses others, he does not have the Lord’s blessing to remain in leadership.
Recently, I spoke with a victim of toxic church leadership. He spoke of a church board that, at the beginning of his experience, was simply misled by the leader. At that time they were responsive to the victim’s pleas for help.
However, in time, he described the board as becoming more and more toxic themselves. It was evident that they were being “handled” by the pastor and buying more and more into the pastor’s foolishness. These board members became heavy-handed like the pastor. They passed on his words as if God’s words. They sought to control the victim for the selfish ends of the leader.
Jesus warned of toxic leadership.
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”Matthew 20:25-28 (ESV)
Real leaders lead as servants to their followers. That goes for churches, businesses, non-profit organizations, or political office.
Standing with Evil
Paul explained the character of true church leadership:
For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.Titus 1:7-8 (ESV)
Unfortunately, we all tend to be swayed by gifted and charming leaders. “They may not have these qualities Paul describes, but they sure get things done. . . and they are things we want done!“
We are quick to stand up at their side against their victims. We jump to the conclusion that the leader could not possibly be so wicked as to sexually harrass, lead with harshness, demean others, spiritually abuse, or seek his own greedy way.
But make no mistake. In standing and jumping we become complicit with the evil.
Paul, speaking in some of his strongest words against the Corinthians, calls them “arrogant.” He calls out the ones who are complicit by remaining aloof of a member’s sin. How much more should we refuse complicity with an abusive leader!
When we stand with an abusive leader we are arrogant in that we think we know better than the one who has suffered under their threats and violence. We think that in our place of favor with the leader we understand them better than the victim.
When a report of toxic leadership is made, the response should be one of listening and understanding. Otherwise, the hearer will face the consquences of his complicity. He is returning evil for the good of bringing to light the darkness of sin:
If anyone returns evil for good,Proverbs 17:13 (ESV)
evil will not depart from his house.
Woe to those who would fail to interpret the events in a true light:
Woe to those who call evil goodIsaiah 5:20 (ESV)
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
Do the Hard Work: Investigate
Many will cry foul as they hold forth the rare exception of false reports. But false reports can be found out when investigated. Unfortunately, many do not take the time to investigate but immediately disbelieve reports against their beloved leader.
We all need to be humble enough to set aside our biases and easily affected attitudes towards our leaders and hear reports with a desire to know the truth.
For, indeed, it is the truth that will set victims free from oppression.
Let us be found to stand on God’s side. Not complicit with toxic leadership.