Like the playground bully of school days, bullies within our institutions must be checked or they will leave a trail of hurt, discouragement, and damage in their wake.
Most often bullies get into leadership positions by bluffing their way in. They convince people they are decisive, in control, without doubt or fear. Nearly always in Christian organizations they are also skilled at playing the “God card.” Organizations facing tough challenges or coming out of a scandal are especially prone to the temptation of turning to the bully.
Most organizational consultants will tell you that behind the bully’s façade of control is a black hole of insecurity. Bullies often are covering up brokenness and inadequacies and hope that their use of power will deflect others from knowing what’s really going on in their lives.
In a recent issue of “Harvard Business Review,” researchers identified the #1 mistake organizations make in CEO successions as failure to follow a clear, purposeful, and mission driven search process. It’s much easier to do it right the first time than to fix it after the wrong person is in place.
Bill Thrall, one of the authors of “Ascent of a Leader” and a highly sought-after executive leadership coach, has observed, “Bullies have a way of smelling when an organization is feeling vulnerable and projecting themselves as the solution. Organizations would do well to do a 1 Corinthians 13 background check on any an every person seeking leadership to guard against making a mistake and putting a bully into leadership.” He then suggests four character traits to consider when evaluating if you have a bully on your hands. Is the person
(1) Impulsive or Decisive?
Good leadership seeks to gather as much and the best information possible before making a decision. Bullies don’t worry about the facts. They know what they want the decision to be and gather any information (true or false) they need to justify it.
(2) Secure or Insecure?
Bullies are threatened by strength, competency, and capable people. They often move quickly to edge people out who are strong and move people in who are weak, inexperienced, or submissive because they believe it makes them look good. Strong leaders surround themselves with gifted, talented people because their ultimate goal is to advance the organization, not prop up an insecure ego.
(3) Into Self-Promotion or Kingdom Advancement
The bully will seek and use every opportunity available to put down others and promote themselves, using lines like, “I’m here to bring order out of the chaos.” Good leaders focus on the mission, or honoring others, and on sharing praise with those who have shared the work.
(4) Into Full Disclosure or Secrecy
Bullies fear people knowing the whole story. They attempt to hide their manipulation or workings behind secrecy or partial disclosure. Good leaders, while respecting confidentiality when necessary, ensure that enough key people know the full truth of a situation to guard against personal agendas or decisions made reactively. Good leaders employ Kingdom values of redemption, reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness. Bullies want to punish, put down, marginalize, and discredit others, particularly if they feel it elevates them in some way.
Invariably, however, bullies sometimes find or force their way into leadership. Then what? Bullies tend to show their colors and soon start pushing people around. When boards or groups realize a bully is attempting to take over, they must speak the truth, stand their ground, and hold the leader accountable. Avoiding the situation or hoping for the best may seem like an alternative, but we all know it simply prolongs the pain.
Perhaps never before has the Christian world been in need of good leaders as it is now. Estimates from many management consultants suggest that 40-60% of current senior leadership in Christian organizations will transition out of leadership in the next ten years.
One of the greatest tragedies will be if we miss this opportunity because of a leadership implosion. Equally tragic will be Christian groups who miss their opportunity to serve because the organization submitted to the bully in their midst. The greatest responsibility of any board is to steward the mission of the organization and the greatest manifestation of stewardship is in the selection of its leaders.
Steve Moore is executive director of the Murdock Trust in Vancouver, Washington.