In part one of this post, we explored the first seven qualities of toxic leadership. Are you ready for the next seven? We are discovering “what not to be” when it comes to spiritual leadership.
For leaders, these are fleshly tendencies that can arise within any leader. By God’s grace we can be grounded in the gospel, secure in Jesus, and resilient as leaders. This will help us serve and care well for God’s people, in spite of the potential of being hurt.
For those under leadership, these are qualities to avoid as you seek a godly environment for your soul. And these are warning signs that should give you pause when following someone in spiritual leadership. Ask God for wisdom and clarity in these matters.
So, let’s dive in. Here are the next seven qualities of toxic leadership:
8. Removes Scripture from Clear Context to Enforce Personal Opinion—A toxic leader will use scripture to build a case that scripture doesn’t support. It’s a fearful thing to misuse God’s word.
Without faithful boundaries of textual exposition, the Bible can be made to say nearly anything. A toxic leader begins with an agenda or personal opinion, and then forces the Bible to support it. (Again, when you are loose with context, you can make it say things that it just doesn’t say.) A servant leader begins and ends with the word, and he lets the Bible say what it says.
Also, this leader isn’t afraid to distinguish between clear biblical truth and personal opinion or preference. In other words, he states preference as preference, and scripture as scripture—separating the two, which is respectable.
2 Timothy 2:15 “15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
9. Emphasizes Why “We” are “Better than Others”—Toxic leadership attempts to generate an “us against them” mentality that the Bible expressly speaks against. Comparison of standards and stylistic preferences are used to lift up “our form” while “putting down” that of other Christians—which makes “us” better, more spiritual, more biblical, etc.
This thinking divides Bible-believers rather than drawing them together in humility. It breaks down what Paul called your “fellowship in the gospel.” (Phil. 1) This mentality creates a pharisaical, stifling spirit in Christians, who are so busy examining and avoiding contamination from other Christians that they are unable to carry on a relational conversation with someone who isn’t precisely like them. This is, spiritually, very nearly the way the Pharisees behaved in the first century.
2 Corinthians 10:12 “12 For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.”
10. Minimizes Accountability and Multiplicity of Leaders—One guy running things, handling money, and unilaterally making decisions is always a really bad thing; and yet it’s quite common. (As a side note: young church planters are usually an exception, as they are likely early in the process of reaching and discipling new leaders who can help provide accountability and structure.)
Toxic leaders elevate themselves up into a position where they are not designed to function. Other leaders threaten them. Accountability agitates them.
Conversely, servant leaders set up boundaries that protect the ministry even from them. They desire financial accountability; they employ best practices; they enlist and train a team of leaders; and they share a mutual commitment to organizational integrity and longevity.
The New Testament clearly teaches a multiplicity or plurality of leaders (Acts 6 and 13, Hebrews 13 clearly teaches “obey them…” plural.) God never tells me to mindlessly “obey” a single Lord except Jesus. He does call me to place myself into a context where I’m being influenced and led by godly leaders who are mutually accountable to each other, and He does call me to obey Him and them in the context of godly under shepherds who “watch for your souls.” (Hebrews 13:17)
This doesn’t negate the need for a senior leader, but it does negate the possibility of a solo leader who may be manipulative, exploitative, or controlling in ways God would forbid. Notice in the verse below the safe context of obedience—multiple leaders, giving godly care, held to a higher accountability, for your profit…
Hebrews 13:17 “17 Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.”
11. Avoids the Command to be “Given to Hospitality”—God’s command to spiritual leaders is to be “given to hospitality.” It’s simple, but rare. In toxic leaders, a hostile demeanor replaces a hospitable spirit. Anger and frustration replace joy and delight.
Furthermore, toxic leaders aren’t known to the people they serve. They avoid growing close to people—perhaps because they’ve been hurt; perhaps because they were taught to protect themselves; perhaps because they are simply insecure. Jesus didn’t do that.
Servant leaders spend time with people, opening both their hearts and their homes. They make themselves vulnerable, and gladly take the risk of being hurt in relationships that they might nurture the hearts of others. While toxic leaders avoid the transparency and relational closeness that hospitality affords, servant leaders embrace it, love it, and foster it!
1 Timothy 3:2 “2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;”
1 Peter 4:9 “9 Use hospitality one to another without grudging.”
12. Emphasizes Performance-Driven Culture Over Grace-Driven Culture—The focus of a toxic leader is “what you do.” The focus of a servant leader is “who you are!” Toxic cultures are driven by incessant busyness, but healthy cultures are driven by increasing community and spiritual growth.
To servant leaders, relationships and spiritual health matter most, because ministry is about loving people. To toxic leaders, relationships are almost viewed, at best, as a waste of time, and at worst, as a threat. Therefore activity minimizes relationships. Busyness prevents closeness.
Toxic leaders drive people rather than leading them, and are sometimes even threatened by people who develop close, godly friendships. Servant leaders will strive to allow God’s work to be led by God’s grace, which will provide for both a culture of thriving community as well as thriving ministry. In this culture, God’s people will love one another and serve one another, and it will be organically driven by grace rather than man-made coercion. To put it clearly: Grace invites someone to serve. Coercion shames them for not serving enough, or for needing to take a break.
1 Thessalonians 2:8 “8 So being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us.”
13. Fosters a Personal Demeanor Characterized by Hostility—Toxic leaders are hostile—inappropriately angry, or generally grumpy and agitated. Sadly, this demeanor repels both believers and unbelievers. No one wants this Christianity, except perhaps other angry/hostile personalities who are looking for a like-minded place to park their bad spirit.
The testimony and reputation of this leader precedes him. His social media posts expose him. He creates a persona that is characterized by hostility and criticism in many various forms. He is a man who is known for stewing—he stews his way through life, rarely finding a reason to rejoice. This man dramatically limits his ministry and influence by his caustic and unrestrained hostility.
The irony of this model is that it’s like a bug light that attracts other hostile temperaments. The leader eventually finds himself surrounded by hostile people and wonders why. His hostility was contagious. He then becomes more angry and hostile as the organizational culture declines in a downward spiral. Contention has birthed more contention. A contentious leader produces contentious leaders and contentious followers.
The leader rarely sees the source in his own heart. His temperament has become culture, and that toxic culture eventually turns on the leader. The whole environment ultimately devours itself like a colony of cannibals. The last one alive wins, but not really.
Galatians 5:15 “15 But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.”
This is one of the most perplexing and paradoxical qualities of spiritual leaders. Isn’t the gospel “good news?” Doesn’t the word of God give us hope? Aren’t we commissioned to love each other and the lost, as Jesus does? Isn’t the fruit of the Spirit made of love, joy, peace, gentleness, long-suffering, etc.? How are any of these things compatible with a hostile spirit?
These leaders are unable to disagree agreeably. They make everything personal. I can appreciate someone having a varying opinion on methods or philosophy of ministry. What I don’t grasp is the emotional hostility in a person who is called to be spiritually mature. A bad attitude is simply not compatible with the work of the gospel, and if it isn’t dealt with in the leader’s heart, it will prevent God’s work from moving forward.
2 Timothy 2:24 “24 And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient,”
14. Avoids Admission of Wrong, Apologizing, Repenting, and Reconciling—Finally, a toxic leader can’t humble himself to accept reproof, acknowledge wrong, apologize, and ask forgiveness. This leader will blame-shift, rationalize, cover-up, misdirect, argue, accuse, avoid—anything but accept responsibility, admit to a mistake or misunderstanding, and simply apologize. With a toxic leader, you are always the problem.
Furthermore, this leader will quickly “cut-off” others. People, who are not hostile or hurtful, like former staff or church members, are inexplicably on a “black list” for no reason other than the leaders’ hostility or insecurity. That insecurity fosters the “us against them” narrative that isn’t necessary or appropriate.
A servant leader will take a different view of offense and of transitioning relationships. His goal is to reconcile, not to win. And in the event of transition, this leader’s goal is to preserve the relationship and remain in loving fellowship, even from a distance.
This leader will absorb hurt, accept responsibility, seek reconciliation, and willingly apologize to win back a broken relationship. This leader will be emotionally and spiritually anchored to the gospel in such a way that he can be vulnerable. By God’s grace, he can lose himself to reconcile or retain a loving relationship. For this leader, it’s not about winning an argument; it’s about winning a heart. It’s not about having control; it’s about protecting Christ-like fellowship.
Romans 12:10 “10 Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;”
2 Corinthians 5:18 “18 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;”
Much more could be said, but this post is too long. Admittedly, this is a sensitive topic and could be taken “offensively” by leaders who are stung by this content. My prayer is that the sting itself will reveal areas where God invites us to grow in grace. Hopefully it has been encouraging and not “stinging.” Hopefully it gives you permission to lead from a gospel-driven heart of grace.
Whether you’re a leader or follower, if your response to reading this post is frustration, let that be a warning light of what’s within you, and how the mirror of God’s word has exposed it.
As a leader, if you find these traits within your leadership style—repent and grow.
As a follower, if you have experienced these traits, remember that responding with hostility would make you no different.
The good news is this—toxic leadership is avoidable.
As leaders, we can grow in grace. We can repent, mature spiritually, and allow God to deal with the insecurities and character gaps that drive these tendencies.
As leaders, we can rest in God’s acceptance, and anchor our hearts deeper into the stability and security offered in the gospel. In Christ we can mature in our insecurities, own our flaws, and trust God to help us lead as servants. We can trust that God does a special work in the hearts of His people—they thrive under shepherds who care well and help them flourish in spiritual health.
To be an influential leader, you must first be a vulnerable leader—hurt-able and approachable. To someday turn around and see growing hearts following your example, you must begin by letting go. Grasping for control guarantees that you don’t have it, and won’t ever have it. Letting go of control, and serving in love, guarantees that God will work through you to help others flourish as they follow Him!
It is counter-intuitive but true. Toxic leaders fight for authority but lose it. Servant leaders relinquish authority to Jesus, and then gain influence under His authority. It really is an exercise in downward mobility.
As followers we can encourage our leaders to be humble, accountable, and spiritually submissive to God’s pattern for leadership. We can assure them that they are loved as they are, and that we view them as growing Christians in the local church family. We can remind them that they aren’t expected to be perfect, don’t have to pretend, and aren’t “in this alone!” We can come along side them as fellow Christians and friends, and let them grow in the security of their identity in the gospel of Jesus. We can reassure and encourage them that growing through these insecurities is a good thing.
Finally, when unavoidably necessary, after doing all that we can to encourage growth—we can determine to step away from the influence of toxic leaders who manifest these qualities with an unrepentant spirit and unwillingness to grow.
May God give us His grace to be more like Jesus in our leadership and follower-ship!