4 Warning Signs You Might be Entering Toxic Leadership Waters

Sep 13, 2022 | 0 comments

Building the next generation of leaders in cross-cultural work and in the church is my passion. Leadership and the potential abuse of power in leadership is something I think about a lot. Thus, I’ve tweaked this post more than most. 

Am I coming across too strongly? 

Do I sound like a jerk? 

Am I soft stepping this so as not to offend?

Since power in leadership involves both soul and skills, you’re getting two articles from me this week. Today we’ll tend the soul and ask some important internal questions. Thursday we’ll look at some tactical skills.

If we met at a party and you asked me what I do, you’d find out I’m a leadership consultant by occupation. We wouldn’t be far into the conversation before learning  some of my concerns facing high and low level leaders in cross-cultural work.

My biggest leadership concern is the number of leaders who don’t understand the dynamics of their own power. 

We see headlines weekly. 

They are disturbing. 

Another leader, exposed for abuse of power. 

We don’t need more toxic leaders. 

Toxic leadership results from an un-Christlike relationship with power, and every person who leads should guard their soul against this. 

Global Trellis readers are working globally in difficult situations with broken people and systems. Power abuse produces the situations we are battling on the field. 

My wife and I work directly with cross-cultural workers in Southeast Asia, and nearly everyone we work with is serving people marginalized because of someone’s abuse of power. 

—The people of Cambodia are still suffering the repercussions of genocide from just a generation ago.  

—In Thailand, the powerful are trafficking the poorest.   

—We know workers in the Philippines who serve a marginalized minority group who were run off their historic homeland to scratch a living out of a mountainside.   

—Today, in Myanmar, the powerful have guns and are killing or imprisoning anyone who resists them.    

This list could go for pages. 

Consider the people you work with. What causes their suffering? 

I’m willing to bet It traces back to powerful people. Rather than using power for the betterment and uplifting of those who are without power, powerful people use power to secure their position of power, gain more money, or satiate their lust. The nature of power is to cling to it at all costs, and at the expense of anyone standing in the way.   

Contrast this with the way of Jesus “who, though he existed as God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself…” (Philippians 2:6-7ff) 

Jesus is our pattern of leadership. 

Leaders who don’t follow in the way of Jesus, but who pursue power, leave a legacy of leadership as idolatry. Beware of power creep. It can ruin everything. 

Effective leadership is not limited to building skills. 

It is critical for effective leaders to tend to their own souls. 

How do you stay wary of power and the corruption that goes with it? 

Step one: Recognize the Extent of Your Power

I used to be the pastor of a small church of around 100 people. It wouldn’t seem like a position of great power. There are many bigger churches with more influence and affluence.

This doesn’t matter. A little unchecked power goes a long way. 

I remember the day it occurred to me I had the ear of nearly one hundred people for 45-minutes every single week. Those people knew me, liked me, and trusted me. The possibility of exercising toxic power was sobering.

When we cross cultures, plant churches, and work with the poor, there are possibilities for abuse of power. If you lead anything, however small, you have power. Thus, you have that potential. 

Uncle Ben of Spiderman fame was correct when he said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

I say with any power comes great responsibility. 

All leadership comes with great power.  

Recognize this.   

Failure to see our power is step one on a path to abusing it.  

Step two: Look for the Warning Signs of Toxicity

Accountability isn’t enough. Too many people think they are accountable and aren’t. It’s too easy to lie to yourself and to others. Leaders are good at accountability avoidance.  

When driving down an unfamiliar road, it’s important to watch for warning signs. I’m always on the lookout for these four “power alerts” in my life.

I coach people to keep watch for these, as well.  

If you find yourself in a place of leadership, look out for these warning signs that your power is getting out of check. 

1. The needs of those you serve are on the back burner

One of my mentors early in my Christian life looked me in the eye and said, “People always come before ministry. Because people are ministry.” I’ve never forgotten this. 

This is leadership lesson 101. People are always more important. More important than reputation or winning an argument or even the status of your organization. If your reputation or the reputation of your organization takes precedent over the needs of the people you serve, there is a potential power problem. Caution

Unchecked power protects itself, its reputation, and its position first. 

Influential leaders serve the good of people first. 

 2. You don’t keep your own rules

I worked for someone who routinely and light-heartedly said, “Do as I say, and not as I do”. Sure, it was in quasi-jest. But I lost an element of respect for the leader and assumed all the policies of the organization were optional. 

Any leader who acts as if the rules and policies don’t apply to them is in a dangerous place. Leaders are not above rules and a system of accountability. Don’t convince yourself otherwise. Hypocrisy is a warning sign of flaunting power. 

3. Lack of discipline in mind, body, and soul

In I Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul connects discipline of the body and discipline of the soul. We don’t have the space to talk about the importance of discipline and leadership here, but here’s what I know: 

Consistent disruptions in my habits and rhythms are warning sirens that something is wrong. When my morning routine is regularly askew and my desk is in complete disarray, I know it’s time to check in with myself. 

Discover the habits you need to be healthy: reading Scripture, prayer, healthy eating, making the bed, sleep patterns – whatever the rhythm is for you. 

Notice when you’re out of rhythm and your regular disciplines wane. This is a sign something isn’t right, and you may be entering toxicity. 

4. Lack of Christian empathy

When a leader can no longer walk in the shoes of the people they serve, it’s a dire warning. Leaders who lack empathy are no longer in touch. Our example is Jesus, who saw the thronging crowds as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Compassion and empathy are leadership behaviors, as much as are decision making and vision. Failure to listen, show interest, and encourage are signals that something deeper is wrong. It’s the beginning of toxic leadership. 

To avoid dysfunctional and toxic leadership, recognize your own power and influence. You have more than you think. 

Then be aware of the warning signs. 

  1. Putting your needs first 
  2. Breaking your own rules
  3. Breaking your rhythms
  4. Lack of empathy

We need more leaders, specifically in cross-cultural work. 

But we should never substitute the quality of leadership for quantity. Leaders who have turned toxic can cause more harm than they know. 

Effective leaders understand themselves – and understand their power. 

Guard your soul from the subtle lure of power and lead with the empathy, sacrifice, and grace of Jesus. 

What are the danger signs in your life that you’re entering toxic waters? 

Share them in the comments. 

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Bernie Anderson

Empowering next-generation leaders, business and non-profit consultant, writer, and speaker.



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