The dark side of leadership

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Used with permission.

As I wrote Early warning signs for Loss of Integrity, I thought someone should write about what we can learn from Christian leaders who fail. Not just moral failure, but anything that sabotages their ability to lead. About a year ago I discovered that someone has done just that! Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima wrote a book to show how to avoid the failures that can cost you your ministry. They used several prominent Christian leadership failures as illustrations in Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: How to Become an Effective Leader by Confronting Potential Failures. Their thesis is that the traits that enabled you to become a leader are the same traits that can be your downfall. They call this the dark side of leadership.

The point is not that leaders have a dark side that others don’t. Everyone has a dark side, but when you are in leadership, particularly in the senior leader’s role, your dark side has the potential to wreak greater havoc than would be the case with most people simply because you have greater ability to affect people. This is why I’ve written that leaders should be held to a higher standard than others. As you rise through the leadership ranks acquiring more power and authority that you plan to use for good, your foibles from the dark side are also acquiring greater power to potentially do serious harm to yourself and others.

In addition to having the power to cause greater damage, senior leaders also have greater potential to use that power because they are relatively unconstrained. Without the nearby presence of a superior authority (the board is not present in the work environment), a key moderating influence on behaviour is missing. This point is recognized by the French politician and poet Lamartine, who wrote in 1848, Absolute power corrupts the best natures.” In 1887 Lord Acton phrased the idea as, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

If a senior leader is either unaware of their dark side or is not able to manage it, and is not subject to meaningful oversight by a board, you have the potential for a failure. The ability to resort to power as opposed to influence (coercion rather than persuasion) makes it more likely that the dark side will rise up and manifest itself in a senior leader than in someone who is subject to more checks and balances that are close at hand. The protection against failure starts with rejecting absolute power (or anything close to it) and submitting to an independent, active board.

Accepting your dark side

McIntosh and Rima point out that Saul (paranoia), Solomon (narcissism), Moses (control), Samson (co-dependency), David (pride) and Jonah (anger) are all biblical examples of people who succumbed (at least at times) to their dark sides. Having a dark side is, they say, normal — just part of being human.

However, it is crucial that leaders allow the Lord to redeem their dark sides because the traits associated with the dark side are usually the same ones that brought people into their leadership roles. They give them the drive, ambition, determination, perseverance and creativity that can lead to great and successful leadership, as long as the negative applications are held in check. God allows leaders to have breaking experiences precisely in order to help them overcome their dark sides.

If you are reflective, you can learn a lot through these experiences. Out of one such experience I gained a fresh perspective on my role in leadership. I was seriously sidetracked by some people’s agendas, and needed to learn that my job is to lead in a godly way and focus on accomplishing the mission. I was allowing a dark side need for external validation to derail my leadership as I sought approval. God places us in leadership to accomplish his purposes, not to satisfy our own needs. I needed to understand this aspect of who I am in order to conquer it. The desire for validation had to shift from validating me to validating the assumptions and strategies I am using to guide us in accomplishing our organizational mission. McIntosh and Rima quote someone who says he is:

…convinced that they [our dark side traits] hold the potential for our most effective ministry and leadership. Without them integrated into our life, our leadership will remain somewhat superficial and manufactured — a leadership of our own creation, built out of what we feel are our best qualities and greatest gifts.

The traits that are associated with our dark sides can be redeemed and added to the gifts and skills that we are already using. When we overcome the dark side, we are then able to lead with the fullness of who God made us to be.

Download personal reflection guide

Download personal reflection guide

Overcoming your dark side

McIntosh and Rima say the way to overcome your dark side is to:

  • Acknowledge it — Most people don’t want to admit they have any dark side at all, so they blame others for everything and see their own actions and thoughts as totally pure or totally justified. The authors say that blaming others indicates that you are in denial. I like to think I’m perfect just as much as the next person does, but I freely admit I am a flawed work in process. Actually, that’s a very liberating position to hold because it takes a lot of pressure off. Perfectionism is one of the two key indicators that you are on the slippery slope to failure. I can’t find who first said it, but there is great comfort in acknowledging, “I’m not yet the person I want to be, but thank God I’m not the person I used to be.” Acknowledging that you have a dark side doesn’t mean you are ruled by it, it simply means you are aware that there are components of your make-up that could, if unchecked, result in selfish motivations that lead to your downfall.
  • Examine it — Look for events in your life that stand out in your memory. These are probably significant, so think about how they have shaped you. The authors say if you can’t remember it, it likely isn’t important. The events don’t have to be traumatic. They could be quite benign or even positive. The important thing is how they affected you. I set the book down at this point and recalled a business professor saying, “Three generations from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves.” That event is not dark or evil and it may not be significant to you, but it has had an enormous influence on me. Much good has come from it (ambition to make something of myself), but I have also seen its bad side (a focus on self rather than purpose). Look for these events and connect the dots to see how they are working in your life.
  • Resist the expectations that lie beneath the dark side — The ones that are unrealistic or selfishly motivated are the ones you must fight against. When you acknowledge events that have shaped you, ask yourself what expectations flow out of that event. For example, shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves refers to a successful entrepreneur and his or her children and grandchildren. The first generation builds, the second generation enjoys and the third generation loses. In other words, the third generation is lazy or incompetent. This saying stung me because I’m a third generation person in terms of this saying, and I don’t see myself as a ‘shirtsleeves’ kind of guy. This saying incited entrepreneurial aspirations in me with expectations of achieving significant business success, yet that meant I was trying to relive my grandfather’s life. I finally realized that my grandfather lived his life true to himself and I need to live mine true to myself too. Once I grasped that thought, I re-interpreted shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves to mean that every generation needs to forge its own way and not rest on the success of the previous generation. Rather than trying to be something I’m not, I dedicated myself to following wherever God would lead me so that I could make the most of who God made me to be. I’ve never looked back!
  • Engage in spiritual disciplines (prayer, reflection, etc) for progressive self-knowledge — You need an accurate picture of who you are as a human being. In addition to the spiritual disciplines, using personality profiles and other external feedback will give you a more clear-headed assessment of yourself and the areas you need to address. From about 1997 onwards I used prayer and reflection to get a really good understanding of my strengths, weaknesses, motivations, gifts and potential. This prepared me for the call I received on May 25, 2001 to go to seminary. I did not fight the call, which was a 180 degree change in direction for me, because I knew that the call fit who I am. Obedience in 2001 is the reason I was ready to accept the call to CCCC in 2003.
  • Understand who you are in Christ — Your true value lies not in your title, performance, achievement or power, but in your worth and value as a redeemed child of God. Set aside the world’s measurement of success and adopt God’s. Success for me is being faithful to God and the purpose for which he made me. Power is not a goal. My current job was never a goal. Neither gives me any value at all, because my value as a person lies in my creation by the Father, my redemption by Christ, and my availability to be used by the Holy Spirit.

You can protect your ability to lead a Christian ministry by being aware of the dark side within you, giving it over to God to be redeemed, and taking care not to let it rear its ugly head.

I discipline  my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. Paul – 1 Cor 9:27

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Thoughts on The dark side of leadership

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