Churches don’t just need bold leaders; they need healthy ones.
The truth is undeniable: leadership matters. With great leadership, God can transform a holy huddle into a city on a hill. With great leadership, bold visions for evangelism and disciple-making can be realized. With great leadership, churches can be beacons of generosity around the world.
Without great leadership, churches lack momentum, have a blurred vision, and are marred by strife.
The dismissal of Darrin Patrick reminded many of us in leadership circles of Mark Driscoll and the similar accusations of heavy-handed leadership and ego run amok. No one should argue, I don’t think, that both Driscoll and Patrick are genuine believers who are gifted in leadership and blessed by God to accomplish His work. Nor will you find this article to be a personal bash against them. Look somewhere else for that.
No. I would wager most leaders have more in common with these two men than we would like to admit publicly. Therefore, we would do well to examine ourselves, empathize with our co-laborers in Christ, and do the tough soul work of identifying toxic leadership within ourselves and our churches.
The difficulty in diagnosing toxic leadership is that that we frequently cannot identify toxic leaders based on external factors. In many cases, things appear to be going well. If we want to seek to understand the anatomy of toxic leaders, we have to turn on the leadership MRI machine and look internally.
Here is the anatomy of toxic leaders:
1) Holds accountable but lacks accountability.
Toxic leaders love accountability, as long as it isn’t their own feet held to the fire. They believe staff should be held responsible for their quality of work, for their hours, and for their results. They believe volunteers should keep their commitments, and be held to a high standard. These are all good things! But when it comes to their own roles, toxic leaders ensure that they are surrounded by yes-men; they maintain the appearance of accountability without the burden of it. They likely hold performance reviews, but likely don’t receive one. As a result, whatever they decide to do is what is done. And we all know the saying about power and absolute power.
2) Known for charisma but not confession.
Toxic leaders are winsome. They have attractive personalities that draw in people. The way they speak and move and lead inspires people to join the cause. Toxic leaders preserve this image above all else, and are not usually marked by a broken and contrite heart. Feigned brokenness can be a prop for charisma. Genuine and authentic confession, a necessary aspect of every Christian’s walk, is usually glaringly absent in a toxic leader.
3) Makes rules but breaks rules.
Toxic leaders enjoy creating policies and procedures for others. They hold staff to high standards and seek to run a tight ship. However, toxic leaders are almost always the exception to their own rules. From policies on time away, work hours, accountability, productivity they simply do not see how the policies apply to their position. Toxic leaders will often apply policies inequitably with others, too. They use rules as leverage, and will be lenient with those in good graces and harsh with those who have crossed the leader.
4) Hates lies but doesn’t tell the truth.
Toxic leaders require unanimity, not unity. So long as staff and followers conform, the status quo is maintained. One implication is that toxic leaders will not abide any degree of ambiguity or dishonesty. They require loyalty and full-disclosure about every minute ministry detail. However, in order to maintain the equilibrium and keep people from asking questions, toxic leaders will use gross exaggerations and even outright lies. The goal is surface calm and the image of unity, not actual unity or healthy conflict.
5) Is seen but not known.
Like narcissistic leaders, toxic leaders value their image above all else. This is a central theme throughout many of these qualities, but with a slightly different expression in each. Here, note that toxic leaders only reveal as much of themselves as will promote their ideal image. So they’ll be social, to an extent. They’ll engage conversation, to an extent. They’ll even tell personal stories, to an extent. But toxic leaders are truly known by very few; maybe even by no one.
6) Hires staff but centralizes power.
Toxic leaders love to delegate but hate to empower. Empowerment requires releasing control and lessening their grip on power. Toxic leaders are quick to hire staff to manage tasks, but they will rarely give organizational authority (to any significant degree) to other staff. The organizational power is centralized within his position, whether it is a staff of five or fifty.
7) Talks forgiveness but holds grudges.
Toxic leaders are only able to maintain their platforms because they know how to say the right things. People aren’t often poisoned fatally by something that was marked as poison. They are killed because it was hidden in something that looked healthy. Likewise, toxic leaders know what to say about leadership, love, peace, and forgiveness. Their lives, however, preach a different message. Toxic leaders are vindictive–sometimes passive-aggressively, and sometimes aggressively. They fire staff who ask too many questions, and shun people who refuse to conform. Their mouths speak of forgiveness but their lives are marked by grudges.
8) Builds a crowd but loses confidants.
Most people cannot identify a toxic leader because they often have a crowd. The thinking is, “If they have so many people around them, they can’t be that bad?” This is a false premise. How many of their closest friends are they able to keep? What is their relationship with their spouse and kids? Are they close or estranged? What is the staff turnover, especially in higher levels of leadership? These will give you a better indication of the toxicity level. Toxic leaders can attract crowds, but those who know them best (or dare to speak up) will eventually leave or be left.
9) Has success at work but loses at home.
Toxic leaders are workaholics. They don’t just put in long hours, they invest their hearts wrongly in their work. Their church ministry is their first ministry instead of their family. As a result, there may be a lot of growth and activity in a toxic leader’s church. However, make note of how much time he spends at home and with his kids. See how his family reacts to him. Toxic leaders excel at work by sacrificing their families on the altar of ministry.
10) Believes in Jesus but doesn’t lead like Jesus.
Toxic leaders aren’t unsaved. Toxic leaders don’t even necessarily have bad intentions. And toxic leadership isn’t an all or nothing proposition. Like anything else, there is a spectrum of toxicity. Toxic leaders may exhibit all of these characteristics or only a few. But the one consistent trait is that they don’t lead like Jesus. Jesus was a servant. He led boldly, but with a mind to serve. He didn’t lord over his disciples, though he was Lord. He didn’t demand unanimity, he built unity. He didn’t hold grudges, he forgave and restored. Even in utter betrayal, Jesus washed feet and served. It’s totally possible to be a leader who believes in Jesus but doesn’t lead like him. But when that happens, we take a step closer to becoming toxic leaders.
What about you? Are you a toxic leader? What action steps do you need to take in order to grow and lead like Jesus? Who do you need to forgive? How do you need to repent? What do you need to quit to love your family better? How can you be more genuine and open with your church?