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Books for those in ministry organizations who desire to take their leadership, teams, governance, and ministry effectiveness to the next level.

04 Jan '12

Angry leaders

Consider this scenario. A ministry leader walks up to one of his staffers in a group of individuals, points his finger at his chest and says,  "I am in charge here and don't ever tell (name withheld) what they can or cannot do." 


What has just happened? The leader has used his anger as a means of power, control and intimidation and done so in a public manner. Whether or not he had reason to confront the other staff member is not the issue. The way he did it was wrong.


There are a segment of leaders in ministry and business who lead out of anger. Those who work for them know that if they cross them, they will face the wrath of the leader. It may be in the form of a threat (I could fire you), in the form of an angry response (Don't ever cross me again), in the form of marginalization (those who are not for me are against me), or in the form of embarrassment (like the example above where there is a public rebuke). Raised voices, high emotion, inability to dialogue, pronouncements of what you will or will not do, clear anger and implied threats are all part of leading by anger. There are many other examples but the key principle is that the leader is using anger as a means of holding power over others, controlling others or intimidating others.


Often times staff members are not immediately aware that their leader is using anger to control them. What they feel is an uneasiness with the leadership style they are experiencing. Here are some of the warning signs that their leader is leading out of anger.


Staff feel like they are walking on eggshells around their leader. Fear of a leader's response is a clear indicator of leading by fear. Staff members are careful about what they say, how they say it and often simply keep silent because they don't want to be the subject of the leader's wrath. Often in these situations staff do not know which of their leader's personalities will show up on any given day.


A leader often lets staff know who is "in charge." Those who lead from anger often use their leadership "authority" to control and manipulate their staff. Subtle or not so subtle reminders of their authority communicates to the staff that they better "toe the line" of whatever the leader desires or become the subject of their anger. 


Anger surfaces when one tries to discuss with the leader behaviors that are unhealthy or issues that the leader feels strongly about. It is not uncommon for staff members to try to talk with leaders who lead out of anger about behaviors that hurt them or the team. What they typically get is a predictable angry response along with a reminder of who is in charge or, defensiveness tinged with irritation. If this becomes a pattern, you know you have a very unhealthy leader on your hands.


A leader divides people into two categories: those who are for them (friends) and those who are against them (enemies). Those who lead from anger, by nature see people as either for them or against them. By definition, those who are for them agree with them and don't cross them while those who disagree with them and cross them are moved to the "enemy" camp. Thus angry leaders build two camps: friends and enemies and you are in one or the other and there is no in between. Often, a staff member who starts out as a friend ends up as an enemy when they find their voice and start to stand up to their leader.


There is a bully factor to the leader. Angry leaders need to have their own way and will use whatever tactics they need to in order to achieve it. It can be a tactic of power (I can fire you) or a tactic of manipulation (I should just resign) or something else but it is manipulation to achieve their ends. Sometimes it is ingratiating (I am so glad I can trust you unlike the others) or the opposite (I am starting to question your effectiveness and loyalty). Whatever the tactic, staff members leave their interactions with a vague feeling that they have been used, manipulated or bullied into line.


Angry leaders are are very hard to please. Angry leaders are often driven leaders whose primary concern is how they look, how their ministry succeeds and when  their expectations are not met you know it! Because life and ministry is about them, anyone who does not contribute to their success by their definition is marginalized, criticized or even discarded. Whenever there is high staff turnover one needs to turn over the rocks and look underneath to determine why. When there is a history of staff leaving or being terminated it is a clue that not all is right. 


Angry leaders lack humility and often display arrogance. Angry leaders are rarely collegial but believe that they have the answers. They often make strong statements about people (often unkind) and situations. Because they are not open to feedback and dialogue when it does not agree with their conclusions it is difficult if not impossible to change their minds. Anger and arrogance are twins.


Here is what one needs to know about leaders who lead from anger. They are deeply unhealthy individuals who create a toxic environment for staff and therefore for the church or organization they lead. Their anger stems from deep and unresolved personal issues and at their core they are deeply insecure people who get their security from their ability to control others. It is a no win situation for staff because they will not change the equation by confronting the behaviors - in fact confrontation brings out the worst. And, the lack of emotional health in the leader will infect the rest of the organization.


The obvious question is what does one do? If you are a board member who sees these kinds of behaviors you have a responsibility to ensure that your leader gets help. Your responsibility is to ensure health in the organization and this is a major sign of dishealth. Even though boards like to give their senior leader the benefit of the doubt, unacceptable behaviors must be dealt with.  If you are a staff member caught in this situation and see no hope of change, I would leave before the dishealth of the leader creates discouragement and cynicism in you that compromises your future ministry. If those who have the authority to act (boards) do not, take charge of your own life before you are hurt and compromised.


I am always puzzled why boards, who often know of deep issues in a senior leader do not confront them, require them to get help and if the behaviors continue fire them. We allow behaviors in the church and in Christian organizations that even the secular world would consider unacceptable and beyond the pale. There are toxic workplaces that exist right under the noses of boards who either are clueless or choose to ignore it. In the process they hurt staff, ministry effectiveness and the constituency they serve.