Healthy Leaders


Abusive Leaders and Servant Leaders

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant …” (Matthew 20:25-26)

Jesus said that leadership in the Kingdom of God is fundamentally different from the leadership of the world. Unfortunately, the leadership that is present in so many churches is not only “worldly” in its authoritarianism; it is often worse than worldly leadership and downright abusive.

An abusive leader centralizes authority in himself and derives power from position, rewards and punishment. In contrast, a servant leader gives authority away to others, encourages participation in decision-making, relies on others’ knowledge and initiation for completion of tasks, and depends on love and respect for influence.

Leaders have a choice: they can hold onto their power and use it purely for selfish ends, or they can give their power away to others. Paradoxically, leaders become more powerful when they give their own power away. They don’t lose – in fact, everyone benefits!

Security in Christ and Healthy Leadership

The central characteristic of a healthy leader is a strong personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Servant leaders lead out of a deep and abiding security in Christ. Abusive leaders, however, usually are very insecure.

Spiritual leadership must be the natural expression of the divine calling. It must not be for the purpose of proving to everyone else – or even to the leader himself – that the leader possesses the calling.

In true leadership, the purpose is the central thing. In abusive leadership, the person of the leader becomes central.

The servant leader truly serves his people by leading them in such a way that their best interests are served. The essence of abusive leadership, however, is that the leader uses his followers for his own selfish purposes.

Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. (1 Cor. 10:33)

… the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)

Seeing himself as fundamentally equal with his followers, the servant leader will lead in humility, and he will actively empower and develop his people. The abusive leader, on the other hand, is domineering and narcissistic. He has high needs for power, driven in part by his own personal lack of security in Christ, and will promote goals that reflect his own self-interests. He will play on his followers’ needs as a means to achieve his own interests (Acts 20:30). He will demand unquestioning obedience and dependence in his followers.

The abusive leader will frequently emphasize identification with, and devotion to, himself over a more straightforward embracing of the values and goals he is ostensibly promoting.

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (2 Cor. 4:5)

Some abusive leaders cause dysfunctional rivalries by promoting antagonistic “in” and “out” groups within their organization – usually the distinction is the issue of extreme “loyalty” to themselves personally. One hallmark of the abusive leader is absolutist polarizing rhetoric, drawing his followers together against the perceived “enemy.”

Other abusive leaders create excessive dependence on themselves and then alternate between idealizing and devaluing dependent subordinates – particularly those who report directly to them.

Domineering leaders often have a difficult time developing successors. They simply enjoy “center stage” too much to share it. Sometimes they will have a “puppet” understudy, but to find a replacement who is a genuine peer may be too threatening for such narcissistic leaders.

The root and fruit of both healthy and abusive leadership are summarized in the following table:

The Root and Fruit of Abusive Leadership
  The Healthy Leader The Abusive Leader
The Root: Security in Christ Personal insecurity
The Fruit:    
Leadership is … The simple expression of God’s calling To prove God’s calling
Central issue is … The purpose of the leader The person of the leader
Leader’s vision … Serves God & the organization Serves the leader
Leader sees himself as … Equal to followers Above followers
Leader promotes … Identification with values and goals Identification with himself
Leader creates … Internal inclusiveness “In” and “out” groups
Power is … Given away to others Centralized in leader
Follower capacities are … Independent of leader Dependent on leader
Leadership succession is … In place Undeveloped

The Heart of the Matter

Abusive leaders are not called so because they beat the people or call them names. Servant leaders are not called so because they serve their followers breakfast in bed every morning.

The essence of abusiveness in leadership is using followers for the leader’s own interests. Thus, an abusive leader may outwardly be quite nice toward people but, in reality, be using and manipulating them.

In contrast, the essence of servant leadership is seeking what is best for the followers in the purposes of God, and not oneself. Thus, a servant leader may actually be quite tough toward people – as Jesus was sometimes toward His disciples – but it is genuinely in their own best interests. The servant leader serves God by serving others.

To Avoid Being an Abusive Leader

Most Christian leaders – as imperfect people – will probably exhibit aspects of abusive leadership at some point. Therefore, the godly leader, knowing that he is not above this tendency, should take the following steps:

  1. Prayer. It is hard to know our own motives. We must remain continually in prayer, asking God to expose what is really happening inside our hearts (Acts 24:16).
  2. Follow the example of the Lord Jesus, the perfect Model of true leadership (John 10:11).
  3. Consciously embrace humility (1 Corinthians 3:7).
  4. Commitment. The godly leader must be committed to God, to his followers, and to inward reality in his own life. Especially during decision-making, he must remain unfailingly committed to truth, not allowing himself to be influenced by expediency, convenience or selfishness. The Holy Spirit will help us do this (Romans 8:13).
  5. Self-awareness. The Christian leader must conscientiously seek to catch himself any time he is tempted to take advantage of his power. (1 Corinthians 4:4-5). Also, the leader should honestly take responsibility for failures – rather than simply blaming others.
  6. Build others. The healthy leader will build the lives of others, and not only when he needs them. In truth, the Christian mission is people-development (Ephesians 4:11-13).
  7. Genuine accountability. Abusive leaders will often happily submit to those who they know share their views. In contrast, servant leaders will seek out honest counselors and mentors who are not afraid to disagree and to hold them genuinely accountable (Galatians 2:1-2).

Which will you be: a big-talking, weak, self-centered leader, or a genuinely-strong servant leader?

(This article contains extracts from Abusive Leadership: SpiritBuilt Leadership #6 by Malcolm Webber.)

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