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22 Sep '13

Dealing with unhealthy or dysfunctional leaders

Coming out of some recent blogs on dysfunctional leaders the question was put to me in response, how does one confront unhealthy leadership behavior? It is a complex question since these leaders often don't play fair but I have seen this done well and I have seen it done poorly. What I will say at the outset that it is not easy. However, since an organization reflects the ethos and culture of a leader, their unhealthy behavior will directly impact the health of the organization and if not addressed for years after they are no longer in leadership.

Let me remind us of what some of those unhealthy behaviors are: The need to get one's own way, passive aggressive behavior, dividing people into camps (those who are for me and those who are against me), marginalizing those who don't agree with them, significant defensiveness, narcissism couched in spiritual language, using the God card (God told me), lack of accountability to a board or spiritual authority, inability to deal with conflict in a biblical way, words and actions which demean others, creating a culture of fear, an inability to lead, manipulating people to get their way, forcing their way through the strength of their responses and arguments which run over others and I could go on. At the bottom of this blog you will find a series of links to blogs that deal with these behaviors.

The first thing to do when you are feeling uncomfortable with a leaders behavior in any of these or other areas is to tell them how you feel. If it happens in private I would address it in private. If it happens in a board or committee meeting I would most likely address it there by saying something like, "Stu, when you respond the way you just did it feels like other opinions are not valued or that we cannot have robust dialogue around these issues. Is that your intention?" Honest feedback is critical to getting to issues with unhealthy leaders if they are going to have a chance at modifying their behavior.

If the issue is a pastor, or organizational leader, you may well need to have an executive session of the board to put the cards on the table. The goal would be to have an honest conversation, and to talk about a plan of action which must include leveling with the leader you have issues with. Certain behaviors should simply not be tolerated when they negatively impact others or hurt the organization. You may choose to get them coaching or help but what you cannot do is allow the behavior to continue. 

The marketplace is far better at this than ministries where in the name of "grace" we don't honestly confront problematic behavior. And remember, we are not judging motives but we are naming behaviors that are unacceptable. In the name of honoring our spiritual leaders we often overlook behaviors that are problematic but frankly that is why we have a plurality of leadership in the church. No one gets a pass on truly dysfunctional behavior no matter who they are.

The more severe the dysfunction, especially when it borders on pathology the more difficult it is to get through the defenses of an individual. Narcissism is a good example. A highly narcissistic individual may never understand or accept that they are in need of help. The higher the defense mechanism within an individual, the more difficult it is to address the behaviors because they are convinced that the issue is not with them. Pathological liars, for instance, believe what they are saying even when it makes no sense to others. 

Some individuals are simply living in an alternative reality field which cannot be penetrated no matter how much you desire to address it. I have come across leaders whose behavior has been deeply egregious and they are totally unable or unwilling to take responsibility or to admit issues that others around them see all too well. It is a sad reminder of our unlimited ability to deceive ourselves which is why all of us need healthy relationships, accountability and the humility to listen to others.

If there is an impasse between the leader and the supervisor or board don't hesitate to bring in a wise leadership counselor who can help put the elephants on the table and as a neutral party help bring resolution. I have often played this role with elder boards either by Skype or in person. In one case of a deeply dysfunctional leader the elders knew something was wrong but just didn't want to face the hard reality until someone gave them permission to say "this is unacceptable."

One thing to keep in mind is that with dysfunctional leaders, once people have been negatively impacted by them they often refuse to serve in leadership and often migrate out of the church or organization. After all why stay if it means one will be marginalized, not listened too or treated badly. Often those in leadership wake up one day to realize that some of their best people have left because they did not deal with the issues sooner. Ironically, the very people you need to bring the organization back to health are not with you anymore. 

The operative phrase in the title of the blog is that one should not neglect to deal with the dishealth in leadership where and when it exists. Not to do so is to abrogate our oversight or leadership responsibility to the detriment of the ministry. It is hard and needs to be done wisely and with grace and truth. The more unhealthy the leader, the more push back you will get which tells you that they are unwilling to live under Biblical accountability and authority which is a non-negotiable or those of us who serve in leadership. Or that they are unable to see their issues which is a fatal flaw that must be addressed - usually with termination.

Some blogs to consider:

Spiritual narcissism

Ambition, money, power and ministry

Why humility is so important in leaders

Five temptations leaders face

Guarding our humility as leaders

Nine overlooked but unhealthy character issues in leaders

Self Deception

The dangers of arrogance in leadership

The EQ factor in the leadership equation

Enemies of a leader's heart

Five danger zones for leaders that contribute to leadership failure