After the narcissist is gone and the dust has settled it’s interesting to view the reactions of people the toxic leader affected. Like Nazi Germany in the mid to late 1940’s many of those who did the bidding of the narcissistic leader remain. Their commentary sometimes ranges from, “I was only doing my job and what I was told to do,” to “I knew he was a problem and secretly did things to sabotage him,” as if this makes their clandestine activity okay if it ever existed in the first place. Then there are the stalwarts who think nothing was ever wrong. “He may have had some quirky things about him but nothing that warranted his removal.” Typically, these people developed a close relationship with the narcissistic leader and/or his family and may have reaped gifts or rewards in the process of the work relationship.
Denial is usually the driving factor for the malignant narcissist. On the way out the door there may be innuendos or implications of retribution on his part to get even. Yes, as crazy as it sounds, this happens in church world. God or submission to a higher power has little or nothing to do with damage control or healing. The once Camelot feeling of the church when it was doing well is now in the throes of people doing what they do best, i.e. submitting to their own will and ego.
There is more and more information being done regarding extreme narcissism but much work still needs to be done. Can narcissists be repaired? Yes but like the compulsive gambler, alcoholic, or drug addict narcissism is so engrained in the person’s psyche that intensive psychotherapy is usually the only route to take. Like any personality dysfunction the root causes are sometimes many and are complex with events and formation stemming back to early childhood years. More often than not, the deposed narcissist goes on to anticipated greener pastures or to an area many miles from the locale of the church. Further, during this regrouping the narcissist is always seeking the retribution that will validate his dysfunction in his own mind whether it’s starting a new or slightly different church organization/not for profit or attempting to cause internal havoc in the originating church from a distance. Once again, the malignant narcissist feels he’s normal and that’s the saddest part. In speaking to a psychologist once about an extremely narcissistic person who was brought to therapy the dysfunction was very evident. The subject gave a resume complete with references when confronted about behavioral issues, indicating I’ve done this, this and this, and you can ask so and so, so and so, and so and so. The subject was 60+ years of age. After the session, it was asked about the possibility for change to occur with therapy. The psychologist’s response was not encouraging. He simply replied, “The behavior is too far engrained. It will probably never happen.”
There is no place that has more potential for the development of narcissistic leadership behavior than church world. Certainly, the private and public sectors have more than their fair share of narcissism but church world in many respects is a different animal. Add in a lack of accountability by boards or elders or boards and elders who have been handpicked to be “yes people” and you now have the formula for an organizational implosion.
The most important thing associated with narcissistic leadership in church world is that it affects the concept of people’s personal spirituality. Personal spirituality strikes at the very core of many people. It defines. It guides. It relates to purpose. Spirituality and one’s connection to a higher power or the even choice not to acknowledge a higher power is what sets humans apart. As previously mentioned, the concept of free will choice guided by submission to a higher power is the antithesis of relying solely on instinctual habits. This is the main flaw in basic evolutionary theory. It fails to take into account free will choice for people to do good or to do bad, i.e. evil.
In looking over those leaders throughout history who were absolute trainwrecks with the devastation they left in their wake we can see the majority were guided by their own narcissism. Further, if one takes a closer look at incidents with Jim Jones, David Koresh, or other religious leaders who brought their organizations down or close to it before being deposed we can see the rampant expansion of narcissism that even permeated upper and middle level managers. One might even hear biblical quotes or biblically based language on a regular basis but somehow leadership actions don’t correspond. For example, and this is not as far-fetched as it might sound, it’s hard for church employees or ministry volunteers to hear a church mantra ingrained in them like a POW brainwashing session, “Think the best, believe the best, think the best, believe the best,” when the directional leader or even a pastor and others in leadership are consistently dropping “F Bombs” in the back office. Incredible but there are good men and women who travel the world trying to put the church or not for profit Humpty Dumpty back together again and their plate is full many times dealing with rampant malignant narcissism in these organizations. Tragically, when an implosion occurs.
How do things that start so good in a church sometimes get so bad? The short answer is the human condition. That’s a pretty broad term but the human condition is such this thing we call free will gives options and rationalization and is very easy for the narcissistic leader. Let me preface what is about to be said with this. Few people (church organizers) wake up in the morning saying, “I feel led to start a church where people can be truly transformed for God and then I’m going to railroad it right into the ground.” Of course, this is ludicrous but something happens in between the time when one has submitted himself or herself to the will of a higher power and then slowly the cancer of narcissism spreads to a malignant state. The behaviors show themselves more and more until employees look at the situation as normal when it’s really a multi faceted dysfunctional model. Some employees who can’t stand the hypocrisy leave on their own. Others who see what’s going on and choose to stay do so because they see the positive results of their own second chair leadership. In other words, they are successful not because of leadership but in spite of it. This, however, does not hold off the inevitable. One thing is for sure. There will be an eventual downfall for narcissistic leadership in church world. It’s just a matter of time. God may have blessed the endeavor at one point but the evil that permeates the religious organization will erode its foundation. The most tragic thing about narcissistic leadership that destroys a church is that not only have people left the church but some who were at the beginning of their journey also leave God. They may have given church one more try and the damage done validates the lies told by the Evil One. How sad.
Some of the liveliest discussions about leadership center on those leaders who impact large populations in a negative way. Hitler, Stalin, and others are responsible for the killing of millions while many in their population just watched or rationalized their behavior to do nothing. Second to that would be those toxic leaders that run the organization into the ground all the while their immediate underlings did the bidding of the toxic leader. Enron, Arthur Andersen, and others are textbook examples. The strange thing is that the exit of the toxic leader exhibits behaviors of these same underlings to degrade the former leader and attempt to befriend the remaining employees as if those who saw the devastation in the organization have short memories.
The common feature with many toxic leaders is their narcissistic nature. The narcissism is like a virus that spreads through upper and sometimes middle management until the organization implodes. The concept of humility is unheard-of. The main focus for a toxic leader is the massaging of personal ego. For upper management and even middle management it’s the same. This can even be seen by administrative assistants who assuage their personal ego by the mere association of the narcissistic toxic leader.
The question is begged what is at the core of this type of dysfunction? How do seemingly intelligent people get caught up in this tragic groupthink? Narcissists and narcissistic organizations go to great pains of avoiding self examination. They feel they are perfect. Sure, you might hear words like humility in their conversations but their actions speak volumes. Once again, this is related to what Erich Fromm calls the “malignant narcissism” and the unsubmitted will. The concept of “speed of the leader, speed of the pack” takes effect in a negative way. The dysfunctional groupthink spreads like a cancer within the organization. Rationalization bolstered by the crowd mentality gets easier and easier.
Illicit behavior typically is developed and is shown in this thing we call conscience, however, the narcissistic personality borders on that of the psychopathic mind. Many times psychopaths exhibit no behaviors that can be detected through a polygraph exam, however, internally the lying, deceit, or illicit behavior shows itself in other physical or mental manifestations, i.e. premature aging, disease, etc. The unfortunate piece to all of this is that most narcissistic people don’t get it. The pathology is so engrained the dysfunction is their normal.
It is important to understand the concept of narcissism and its effect on people and ultimately organizations. Just as a refresher, we can define narcissism as that behavior or conscious action stemming from self-interest. We must remember, however, there is a difference between self-interest for survival that includes eating, sleeping, etc. and that relating to the feeding of personal ego. Erich Fromm takes this a step further in defining something called “malignant narcissism,” which relates more to a nonsubmitted will when explaining self-interest. This is especially apparent in organizations, even seemingly successful organizations, where the leader/s or upper echelon rationalize or justify behaviors that are out of character with good moral judgment or decision-making.
All decision-making is based on this thing we call free will. The theological perspective explains evil existing in the world as a consequence of free will. God allowed human beings to have free will to make good choices or not and at that point evil entered into the world. The secular evolutionary perspective reveals that less evolved creatures depend more on instincts since they typically lack the ability to think in terms of behavioral consequences. Less evolved creatures lean more toward instincts as opposed to independent submission to a higher power, ideal, or philosophy.
Some may argue that inherent to success is a strong-willed person making tough decisions but this can be played out in everyday life in business and in church world. Tough decisions needed to be made at Enron, Arthur Andersen, and other organizations where failure due to malignant narcissism and free will decision-making was obvious. Evil dominated the decision-making. Some of this same malignant narcissism still permeates many organizations and even churches and we hear about it only when the news hits the media.
The question remains, how do we, in our decision-making and exercise of free will, submit to a higher power, ideal, or philosophy and reinforce the not so popular view that moral absolutes do, in fact, exist? From an evidentiary standpoint, we need to look at those people and organizations that have consciously chosen this thing we call submission to a higher power and see the results. This can be a double-edged sword. Once we see the positive results for our free will submission to a higher power for our decision-making and the subsequent reduction of malignant narcissism this will beg the question why our political leaders, public, and private organization CEO’s, and many of our church/not for profit leaders are not doing it.
In some leadership circles there seems to be an intentional exclusion for what some call a higher power or God in their lives. This is usually done in the name of diversity and not wanting to offend anyone.
Consider this example that typifies what this looks like and the lack of foresight, discernment, and wisdom on the part of a mid level manager. A well known local author is brought in to a class of college students to discuss addictions counseling and recovery programs. There are many excellent 12-step programs that address “a higher power” and this individual was no different in the content of his presentation. In fact, he authored a book on his story and subsequent recovery and even had the word, “Jesus,” in the title.
When the professor sent an email blast to staff encouraging students to attend the lecture and hear the author’s subsequent testimony the professor received an email from his dean indicating that a religious slant might be offensive to some students and to refrain from the forwarding of religious points of view. As an aside, the dean never read the speaker’s book. If she had she would have realized that term was part of moniker given to what the author did early on in a sporting career. It had nothing to do with religion. The professor did what all good professors do. He considered what was in the best interest of the students, disregarded the dean’s email, and encouraged the speaker to go full blast with his presentation. Long story short, the speaker was a hit and his personal testimony struck a chord with many of the students who had family members with addictions and some of whom had been struggling for years with destructive addictive tendencies. Needless to say, the speaker came back several times to speak to students at the college and the email to staff always excluded the dean.
There are several important points with this example. First, there was the total lack of understanding of the part of the dean that shone brightly her ignorance and secondly, the second chair leadership exhibited by the professor in advancing a situation that would enhance student learning.
In leadership, especially in second chair leadership positions, there are opportunities to grow not because of the current leadership but in spite of it. This is key. It is equally important to pick and choose the battles one undertakes.
Leadership can be exhibited in many forms at different levels. Sometimes the leadership above lacks ability or vision or both to make good decisions. It is up to those change agents within the organization to assess when and how changes can be effected and still move forward with the goals of the organization.
When we hear the phrase, “A man reaps what he sows,” it typically has negative connotations, and rightly so. That’s one way to say that for the behaviors a person practices there are consequences, usually bad. The realm of leadership is no different especially for toxic leaders who feel they can rationalize or justify anything they think, say, or do.
The important concept to remember about sowing and reaping relates to positive change albeit incremental and that is totally contingent on the long term and not a magical overnight turnaround. As such, it is important that the sowing of the good seed needs to be done first and requires patience. Successful people in 12-step programs have this down correctly with focus, restoration, and healing. They learn from the past and don’t live in the past. They are not afraid of the future because they are too busy living in the present. Success is built one day at a time and one challenge at a time. Leadership sowing and reaping is no different.
The best part of positive sowing and reaping is that one will always reap more than is sown. This is called the Law of Multiplication. This same principle holds true for investing and even for something in church world called tithing.
Finally, the best time to plant, no matter what the circumstances, is now, not tomorrow, or the week after, or when circumstances might be perceived or rationalized as more ideal for whatever reason. The most important result for positive sowing and reaping is the legacy one leaves and that legacy can be expanded upon for generations. This all begins with the concept of choice. If people truly reap what is sown then why wouldn’t one want to begin the process and do the work in the beginning to ensure success. This means success in leadership, and more importantly, success in one’s personal life.
The difference between people who are successful and those who are not as successful is that successful people tend to persevere and those who are not as successful yield more easily to challenges and negativity associated with why something possibly cannot be done. Sure, it’s good to anticipate the bumps in the road but that should not stop one from always pursuing a direction to the goal.
When we take a look at past successes of individuals throughout history one can see a pattern. When someone asked Thomas Edison about the 5,000+ non successful attempts at developing the light bulb he merely stated the time was not wasted. He actually discovered 5,000+ ways how not to develop a light bulb. When Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile in 1954 he achieved something that had been tried over a hundred times before in the preceding 10 years in spite of sports physiologists indicating that human physiology had not progressed to the point of breaking that barrier. As an aside, when Bannister broke the 4-minute mile that barrier was broken no less than 16 times in the three years after the record was set. When it appeared the astronauts on Apollo 13 were doomed to run out of filtered air on the way back to Earth engineers at NASA were shown duplicate items in a cardboard box the astronauts had onboard their spacecraft and were told to develop a procedure to filter out the carbon dioxide in their cabin using only those materials. They did.
The whole point to success is not only perseverance, however, but also motivation. Motivation comes in different forms and individuals need to find their personal motivators. In other words, what works for them. No matter what challenges one faces in life and no matter how large or how small, success at anything demands perseverance, motivation, and an attitude that nothing will stand in the way of success. That’s how it’s done. One final word about being successful. Successful people place themselves in the company of other successful people and those who are motivated to be successful. They avoid negative people and the debilitating effects of people who are negative.