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The Role of Insecure FollowersMalcolm Webber
In the face of abusive leadership, followers may react in one of three ways:
- They may perceive the abusiveness and refuse to comply with it. Some may resist openly either through direct confrontation or through “whistle blowing” to a higher authority. Others may quietly leave the organization, not wishing to be part of a “fight.”
- They may perceive the leader’s actions as abusive but comply with him despite their perceptions. Thus, they will obey the leader and outwardly endorse his views and actions, while secretly disagreeing. They may be too afraid of the leader (or those “with” the leader) or too uncertain of themselves to make an open move of disagreement. They may also have some vested personal interest in going along with the abusiveness — like the lackeys in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Perhaps all their friends are in the organization. In certain cultures, people allow their leaders to exhibit large amounts of obvious abusiveness and still follow them. One man, when asked why he was continuing to follow a leader who he acknowledged had serious problems, replied, “In our culture, the leader is the father; we’re the children. Children follow their father.”
- They may both outwardly and inwardly accept the behaviors, views and demands of the leader. They believe the leader’s actions are reasonable, even when those actions are blatantly self-serving and undermine others. Their occasional skepticism is easily swept away by the leader’s persuasive arguments and rationalizations. Such followers have had their belief systems infiltrated by the leader who is thus enabled to get away with increasingly extreme ideas, actions and demands.
Abusive leaders would not exist if no one followed them! Without followers, an abusive leader would be nothing but an empty shell, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Insecure followers who look to their leaders as “parent” figures, seeking their approval and acceptance, are what make abusive leadership possible. Their insecurity causes their vulnerability. They are not secure in Christ, so they look to the leader for their identity and security. Such followers are willing to give their leaders inordinate amounts of control over their personal lives and relationships, and over their belief systems. Often they will suspend their own individual judgments and follow unquestioningly the dictates of the leader. Sometimes they will even begin to adopt the personal characteristics of their leader. (It should be noted that healthy leaders can also have unhealthy or immature followers who possess some of these characteristics. When the leader perceives this unhealthy relationship that others may have with him, he must do all he can to confront and transform it into a godly relationship.)
Certainly, it is appropriate to imitate the characteristics of a good leader related to his character, values, lifestyle, dedication to God, and so forth (1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Thess. 3:7-9; Heb. 13:7), but it is dysfunctional to imitate his personal quirks! (The followers of one abusive leader went so far as to imitate his choice of running shoes and his favorite brand of peanut butter!)
Insecure followers are willing to give the extreme personal “loyalty” their leaders demand and constantly feel guilty that they may be weakening in their loyalty. They willingly take the blame for any failure of the leader’s vision and scold themselves every time the leader questions their loyalty: “If you were really committed, you would…!”
Not having found a sense of secure acceptance in Christ, these followers are highly motivated to seek the leader’s personal approval and are highly affected by the leader’s actions, beliefs and even mood swings. Their personal vulnerability to their leader goes far beyond what would be considered normal in the leader-follower relationship. This extreme vulnerability enhances the leader’s ability to alter and abuse the follower’s perceptions, emotions and thoughts.
Thus, follower-insecurity creates the opportunity for abusiveness that leader-insecurity takes advantage of. The solution, in both cases, is repentance and security in Christ. Healthy leader-follower relationships must be based upon a mutual recognition and experience of the centrality and all-sufficiency of the Person of Jesus Christ.
To the Victims:
People who have been the victims of abusiveness in churches, denominations, marriages, families or jobs, should consider two things:
- The leader hurt the follower out of his own insecurity. He was probably not intentionally trying to hurt the person.
- A large part of the problem lay in the follower and his own insecurity. Insecure people cannot hurt those who are secure in Christ.
Consequently, the solution for a person who is still “hurting” from having been abused in this way in the past is to forgive the abuser and then to let God set him free from insecurity, finding deep security in Christ, so it will not happen again.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for an insecure individual who has been disappointed by the discovery of defects in an idolized leader, to cast him aside and search for a new hero, to whom he attaches himself in the hope that he will not be disappointed again. The only solution to this cycle is to find security in Christ.
Our next Letter will continue this study of abusive leaders.