Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

May 2005
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Personal Qualities

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

Servant leaders are secure in Christ. Consequently, their focus is not themselves but others. Abusive leaders, however, are insecure. Because of their insecurity, their agendas revolve around themselves. They are characterized by self-absorption, self-protection and self-interest.

Because they are secure in Christ, servant leaders exercise power in constructive ways to serve others. They are more concerned about genuinely contributing to the welfare of their followers than they are about promoting their own dominance, status or prestige.

In contrast, abusive leaders exercise power in dominant and authoritarian ways to serve their own interests, to manipulate others for their own purposes and to win at all costs. Although they know how to mouth the right religious slogans related to servanthood, in reality they are preoccupied with “looking out for number one.” They use power for personal gain and exercise it in a dominant and controlling manner. The life of the organization revolves around them – not their visions but their persons.

The two kinds of leaders also differ in their moral standards, which influence their decisions. Servant leaders follow biblical principles of truth, which may go against the majority opinion. Such leaders are not swayed by popular opinion unless it is in line with biblical principles. They are internally consistent, acting in concert with their values and beliefs. Moreover, they promote a vision that inspires followers to accomplish collective objectives that will help the organization and promote Kingdom agendas. Their vision is driven by “doing what is right” as opposed to “doing the right thing” for the moment. Through their example of high moral standards, they develop the moral principles, standards and conduct of their followers.

Abusive leaders, however, follow standards if they satisfy their immediate self-interests. They are skilled at managing an impression that what they are doing conforms to what others consider “the right thing to do.” They are often excellent communicators and are able to manipulate others to support their personal agendas.

Servant leaders are realistic in appraising their own abilities and limitations. They learn from criticism rather than being fearful of it, welcoming both positive and negative feedback. They are open to advice, seek accountability, and are willing to have their initial judgments challenged. Leaders who are secure in Christ have the confidence to encourage contrary opinions and can enhance themselves through the strengths of others.

Abusive leaders, however, have an inflated sense of their own importance, thrive on attention and admiration from others and shun contrary opinions. They attract and gravitate towards followers who are loyal, affectionate and uncritical. They seek to create loyal supporters and eliminate all dissenters. They are unwilling to have their strategies questioned and expect and even demand that their decisions be accepted without question. Moreover, they will avoid genuine accountability, feeling personally threatened by it.

To succeed in such an organization, followers soon learn to offer the leader only the information he wants to hear, whether or not it is correct. In extreme cases, even critical information may be withheld because of the leader’s intolerance and intimidation, resulting in organizational disaster.

When an abusive leader succeeds in some organizational endeavor, he is often further confirmed in his central abusive tendencies by the accolades that accompany his accomplishments. If he believes the praises heaped on him, he will be further seduced by delusions of greatness. Each time the admiring crowd shouts its approval of him, the leader’s façade of invincibility is strengthened. There is a mutually-reassuring intoxication as the followers are mesmerized by the leader’s success and the leader is mesmerized by the enraptured adoration of his followers. Rather than focusing on the next challenge, he becomes preoccupied with maintaining an aura of greatness. Image management replaces active, meaningful leadership of the organization.

Servant leaders, however, are secure in Christ and so do not need the praises of men. Instead, they deliberately avoid the trappings of success, choosing to stay little in their own eyes. Moreover, their followers who have been strengthened in their capacities for responsible thought and initiative, provide critical input to their leader – balancing encouragement with reality (in contrast to the flattery that the abusive leader surrounds himself with) – which may keep him from straying down the wrong path.

Personal Qualities
Servant Leader Abusive Leader
Secure in Christ. Personally insecure.
Is considerate and concerned for others. Is concerned primarily with himself.
Studies the stress that others are under to help alleviate it if possible. Constantly elicits sympathy for himself over his own stress and hardships.
Willing to discuss his decisions and the reasons for them, unless circumstances do not allow. Interprets questions as personal criticism or disloyalty.
Tries to work with the initially uncooperative, seeing their positive potential. Quickly discards individuals who he perceives will not embrace his vision or conform to his agenda.
Trusting toward people; thinks the best. Suspicious toward people, sometimes to the point of paranoia.
Vulnerability is power. Knowledge is power.
Communicates freely and openly. Withholds or conceals information when it does not suit his purposes.
Responds to problems with prayer and investigation. Responds to problems with anger and accusation.
Responds to failure by taking personal responsibility. Responds to failure by blaming others.
Knows he must earn the support of his followers. Demands unchallenged support.
Welcomes appropriate accountability. Threatened by any attempts at real accountability.

Our next Letter will cut right to the heart of the contrast between servant and abusive leadership.

This Letter was republished on the Monday Morning Insight website and received extensive comments from church leaders.

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