Toxic Leaders in Our Ranks
Ten years ago, the United States Army decided to explore a previously forbidden subject: toxic leadership. What they learned could have far-reaching ramifications for their organization, but also for others, including the church.
It all started when then Brigadier General Pete Bayer sought to understand why nearly 30 soldiers stationed in Iraq committed or attempted suicide in 2009. After extensive interviews, researchers found that in each case, the victims served under a leader who classified as toxic. According to the Army's manual, toxic leadership includes:
A combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects.
The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest.... Prolonged use of negative leadership to influence followers undermines the followers' will, initiative, and potential, and destroys unit morale.
This description contradicts the leadership modeled by Jesus and his disciples, which values servanthood, sacrifice, love, and concern for the followers' future. While most religious leaders embody these godly qualities, more than a few of us have encountered ecclesiastical leaders who, according to the Army's description, would be classified as toxic.
Obviously, the consequences of toxic leadership within the military are generally more costly than within the church; the worst church will never equate with the horrors of combat (sexual abuse by priests and pastors not withstanding). Furthermore, though Scripture commands us to be continually transformed into the image of Christ, not one of us will achieve perfection. As such, our expectations of what a leader should be need to adjust accordingly. That said, the Army's willingness to admit that they have a leadership issue that needs to be addressed can embolden those of us in the church to learn how to recognize broken leaders in our own ranks. Our awareness might limit their influence before too much damage is done.
A common characteristic of toxic leaders is their tendency to hoard power and shun accountability. Sir John Dalberg-Acton famously wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power absolutely corrupts." If a toxic leader is part of an organization that idolizes and rewards those who wield power, such as the military, they may quickly rise through the ranks, growing increasingly disinterested in partnering with anyone but those they deem equal status.
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