Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

October 2004
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Security in Christ and Leadership

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

The most central and important characteristic of a healthy leader is a strong personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Servant leaders lead out of a deep and abiding security in Christ. Abusive leaders, however, usually are very insecure. There are other reasons why certain leaders become abusive, but insecurity is one of the main ones – especially in the church.

Spiritual leadership must be the natural expression of the divine calling. It must not be for the purpose of proving to everyone else – or even to the leader himself – that the leader possesses the calling.

How can you tell which you are?

In true leadership, the purpose is the central issue. In abusive leadership, the person of the leader becomes the central issue.

How can you tell which you are?

The servant leader truly serves his people by leading them in such a way that their best interests are served and they find fulfillment. The essence of abusive leadership, however, is that the leader uses the followers for his own selfish purposes.

Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. (1 Cor. 10:33)

…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)

The servant leader will articulate a vision that serves the interests of the whole organization. Seeing himself as fundamentally equal with his followers, he will lead in a non-self-aggrandizing manner, and he will actively empower and develop his people. The abusive leader, on the other hand, is domineering and narcissistic. He has high needs for power, driven in part by his own personal lack of peace and security in Christ, and will promote goals that reflect his own self-interests. He will play on his followers’ needs as a means to achieve his own interests (Acts 20:30). He will largely disregard the feelings of others, and will demand unquestioning obedience and dependence in his followers.

How can you tell which you are?

The abusive leader will frequently emphasize identification with, and devotion to, himself over a more straightforward embracing of the values and goals he is ostensibly promoting.

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (2 Cor. 4:5)

How can you tell which you are?

Regarding vision, problems occur when domineering leaders possess an exaggerated sense of the opportunities for their vision, when they grossly underestimate the resources necessary for its accomplishment, or when they seriously underestimate the obstacles that stand in the way of its fulfillment. In addition, visions often fail when they reflect largely the leader’s needs rather than the legitimate needs and aspirations of his constituents. A self-absorbed leader may also be unable to recognize fundamental shifts occurring within or around his organization that demand redirection of the vision.

Abusive leaders are prone to exaggerated self-descriptions and claims for their visions, which can mislead their followers. For example, they may present information that makes their visions appear more feasible or appealing than they are in reality. They may screen out looming problems or foster an illusion of control when things actually are out of control. In these ways abusive leaders manipulate, and ultimately take advantage of, their followers.

Organizations led by such leaders, inevitably fail to achieve these lofty visions. Frequently this results in the people becoming bitter and disillusioned and vowing to never commit themselves to a leader again: “I was used once, but never again!”

Some abusive leaders cause dysfunctional rivalries by promoting antagonistic “in” and “out” groups within their organization – usually the distinction is the issue of extreme “loyalty” to themselves personally (This sometimes happens within a family with husband and wife vying for the loyalty of the children). One hallmark of the abusive leader is absolutist polarizing rhetoric, drawing his followers together against the perceived “enemy.”

Other abusive leaders create excessive dependence on themselves and then alternate between idealizing and devaluing dependent subordinates – particularly those who report directly to them.

How can you tell which you are?

Domineering leaders often have a difficult time developing successors. They simply enjoy “center stage” too much to share it. Sometimes they will have a “puppet” understudy, but to find a replacement who is a genuine peer may be too threatening for such narcissistic leaders.

The root and fruit of both healthy and abusive leadership are summarized in the following table:

The Healthy Leader The Abusive Leader

Our next Letter will look at the role of insecure followers .

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