Beware of the Toxic Leader!
Over the past decades of working with people to establish ministries and enterprises, I have observed individuals who are “toxic” leaders. Sadly, it is not always easy to identify a toxic leader, too often we will not realize it until we see the destruction they cause to the team – and ultimately to the mission.
Building a successful ministry or enterprise requires diligent and prayerful oversight of the team. Jesus modeled this by keeping his team of disciples with him for three years to adjust their natural thinking, attitudes and behavior so they would represent the true nature of God when he sent them into the world. Even after three years of living and with Jesus, Judas still determined in his heart to be self-serving and betrayed Jesus for only thirty pieces of silver. Jesus’s brother Jude warns us about the people who will sneak in and join you in fellowship meals… but are like “dangerous reefs that can shipwreck you.” These are toxic people and the enemy is simply using their natural gifts to undermine and destroy your mission.
A Toxic Leader is someone who contains un-godly character traits that manifest in extremely harsh, malicious or harmful ways to infect and poison others. The result of this poisoning behavior is demoralizing to teams; slowing, if not halting, the advance of the mission and often leads to the destruction of that leader. The danger is – they masquerade their true self in front of leaders for too long.
Why they are toxic is not the focus here. What matters is how to recognize the toxic leader and what to do with them to avoid destroying the team and diverting the mission. The Bible is full of stories of deception (the Gibeonites), warnings by Jesus (beware of whitewashed tombs), cautions by Paul, Peter, Jude and others. Jesus warned to not “judge by mere appearance.” Far too often, Christians assume people are telling the truth and appear to be “Godly” when all the while they are concealing their true self. Jude witnessed this and wrote about “certain people have crept in unnoticed… who pervert the grace of God…they are spots in your love feasts without fear, serving only themselves. Clouds without water…trees without fruit, raging waves of the sea…” Toxicity is a poison that spreads like a cancer; one word or one action can infect anyone nearby.
One heart for One Purpose
Paul advised the Philippians in 2:2, “Make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another and working together with one heart and purpose.” To build and keep a healthy team, apostolic leaders must be shepherds who watch out for the signs of a toxic leader. Like David who looked for wolves, lions and bears who would harm the sheep, leaders need to use the rod and staff to protect the team and team moral. They must promote Godly cooperation between team members. When the teams knows the leader is watching out for them, there is great peace, power and effectiveness. It creates a powerful unity as everyone can work together with one heart and purpose. And, everyone is more willing to go the extra mile when needed to finish a mission (the Nehemiah model).
Be Aware of these Signs of a Toxic Leader and why they are Not team players:
They love to talk about themselves: how much they have done for others, who they know and how God is using them. They interrupt others to turn attention back on themselves. They are deceived into thinking that their life is proof God favors of them and what they do must be the result of the fruit of the Spirit in their life – but it’s a smoke screen to cover up their lack of fruit.
It is one thing to boast about their greatness, but they don’t stop there, they use it as a weapon to manipulate and criticize others by comparing what they have done to the seemingly lesser endeavors of others. By accentuating their life over others, they demonstrate a lack of humility and the fruit of the Spirit, “When the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
- Animosity drives Alienation: Toxic leaders actively alienate team members them from the leader and from each other.
When a toxic leader is on the team, they are not interested in working together with the team, but commanding the team to submit to their will or deliberately neglecting and abandoning the team once they get what they want for their own exaltation. They withhold information to sabotage the team’s efforts. They make others appear to be poorly informed or ineffective. They drive wedges between people and secretly rejoice over the trouble they cause for others on the team. The goal is to rid the office of potential dissenting voices and rivals.
Toxic leader will not work to develop team members because they see them as “not worth the time.” They criticize team members and manipulate conversations with other leaders. They are duplicitous: saying one thing to some people and another thing to others on the same issue. Their favorite saying, “He’s not spiritual enough or gifted enough. He doesn’t get the vision or he doesn’t understand the mission.” What they really mean is, “He’s not as gifted as I am or he doesn’t understand me” or “he’s in the way of our (my) mission.” A toxic leader will never use affirming words to a team member however; they might say something positive to a higher leader to manipulate that leader’s opinion of them.
Proverbs 6:16-19 says, “There are six things the LORD hates – no seven things he detests: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that kill the innocent, a heart that plots evil, feet that race to do wrong, a false witness who pours out lies, a person who sows discord among brothers.”
- Ambition for Authority: The goal of alienation is to gain more authority by a higher position.
Toxic leaders really want the top position – they want the power and prestige authority brings. They work to position themselves to be the “teacher’s favorite” by manipulating facts to put themselves in a better light. They want the leader to see their viewpoint so the “vision can grow better.”
Esther chapter three describes the attitude of Haman the Agagite who positioned himself to be promoted by King Xerxes, “making him the most powerful official in the empire next to the King himself.” He wanted this position to have authority over everyone and receive the same honor as the King; all the people would bow down to him. Haman needed the ear of the King in order to manipulate him ultimately to sign a law to destroy all of Mordecai’s relatives, the Jews.
Toxic leaders want strong relationships with those over them and manipulate to get the seat next to the King. Their true colors show when the leader questions them, directs them or corrects them. Then you might hear, “You must trust me” or “Don’t you trust me?” Proverbs 12:20 says, “Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil.” However, James 4:10 says, “When you bow down before the Lord and admit your dependence on him, he will lift you up and give you honor.”
- Aversion to Correction: Toxic leaders have a minimalist view of accountability that is revealed when they are corrected.
These leaders are deceived into believing they are beyond reproach – they are “Above the Law.” They never make mistakes and are very willing to throw others “under the bus” to cover their errors. They use many excuses to cover their own weaknesses and elevate themselves. It’s always someone else’s fault (usually on the team).
Sadly, the errors are often the result of toxic leader’s animosity and alienation of the team. They have withheld information, given erroneous details, and a variety of other plots to undermine the success of the mission. Without seeking the team’s wisdom and knowledge, the toxic leader makes poor or wrong decisions.
Proverbs says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” True leaders work with their team, gladly receive guidance and take ultimate responsibility.
- Angry Outbursts: Toxic leaders have frequent outbursts of anger and rants when questioned.
They expect everyone over them to treat them with a velvet glove while they hit others below them with a rock! When they don’t feel they have absolute and unquestioning agreement for their idea, opinion or plan, their emotional weakness erupts. Their anger catches people unaware and creates great tension and confusion. No one wants to contribute wisdom or knowledge to the project for fear of a backlash, which could be public or private. This destroys team collaboration.
Haman the Agagite believed he was to be obeyed like the King. He was the “anointed one” with the title and position. When Mordecai refused to bow down and had influence with the King, Haman “was filled with rage” and devised a plot to hang him and obliterate the Jewish nation. The Agagites were sworn enemies of the Jews. That spirit operates through many people today to destroy God’s work. Be alert for signs, it will be revealed when questioned or accused.
James 3: 17-18 says, “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.” True leaders don’t lord it over the people assigned to their care, but lead them by their good example (1 Peter 5:3).
What to do with a Toxic Leader:
When a toxic leader is revealed, apostolic leaders must take action. Pray, seek council and God’s Word. Toxic leaders need counsel and correction. It may take shifting them to another role or eliminating their position. It you go to your brother and they listen and change, you have gained a friend, if they will not – you must let them go. Whatever you allow on earth is allowed in heaven (Matthew 18:15- 18).
The history of Israel is full of toxic leaders who led the nation to its destruction numerous times. Don’t allow a toxic leader to remain toxic and on the team; before long, there will be no team. Remember, Jude 12, “When these people join you in fellowship meals… they are like dangerous reefs that can shipwreck you.” To advance our mission mandates, we must recognize, address and remove toxicity – and toxic leaders!
Can anything good come from a toxic leader?
Yes, they are mirrors for us. We are encouraged to look in the mirror and check our motives and behavior so we will not be like the natural man. As James 1:23-25 says, “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in the mirror…immediately forgets what kind of man he was.. but he who is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.”
Finally, as Paul says in Ephesians 5:15, “So be careful how you live, not as fools but as those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity for doing good in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but try to understand what the Lord wants you to do.”
© 2016 John P. Kelly