The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership- The Paradox of Personal Dysfunction
By Gary L. McIntosh & Samuel D. Rima (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI. 1997). 233 pages.

This is a book by leaders, for leaders, designed to prevent their readers from adding their names to the list of those who succeed greatly at spiritual leadership, only to have their "dark side" ultimately get the best of them and ruin their lives and ministries.

Nobody has to look very far to see spiritual leadership failures. Yet many wrongly think that these failings are merely the work of Satan:

Many Christian leaders have been taught to blame the "enemy" for their leadership failures. When a leader commits adultery, embezzles money from the church, or gets caught exposing himself, the most frequent explanation among the ranks of the faithful is "Boy, the devil sure is working overtime," with little attention given to the realities of human dysfunction. (p. 155)
The fact is, all of us have a "dark side"  that consists of the unmet needs and "existential debts" that orient our lives and drive us from deep down inside. These often provide motivation to do good things-- such as spiritual leadership. But when these "dark side" characteristics continue to lurk in the darkness and are combined with spiritual leadership, we have a recipe for disaster. Pride, selfishness, self-deceit and wrong motives are identified as the tell-tale signs that the "dark side" is out of control.

Five different types of unhealthy leadership patterns are discussed:

  • The Compulsive Leader
  • The Narcissistic Leader
  • The Paranoid Leader
  • The Codependent Leader
  • The Passive-Aggressive Leader
Each of these five types are discussed in detail with examples from Biblical characters as well as contemporary spiritual, political and business leaders. Readers will recognize the names discussed and appreciate the expression of these failures in this context. A chapter is devoted to each of these particular manifestations, with a short questionnaire at the end of each chapter to help the reader gauge his or her inclinations to this type of leadership.

Here is a citation from the book, a summary statement regarding the dangers of the dark side:

A compulsive dark side allowed to operate unchecked can result in a personal and organizational rigidity that stifles creativity and frays our relationships with others. Compulsive leadership can produce a self-righteous, legalistic environment that alienates the people we are called to lead. Compulsive tendencies can result in workaholism or a painful emotional explosion and lead to a complete burnout that may take years to recover from. Additionally, the urge to control those we lead and live with more often than not results in alienation and rebellion as people react against our control. More than one marriage and church have been hopelessly fractured by such leadership.

If, however, like King Solomon and Jim Bakker, our dark side takes the shape of narcissism, it can cause us to exploit those we have been called to lead. Rather than looking our for the needs of others, narcissism, if not overcome, will cause the leader to see people as so much "beef on the hoof," whose sole purpose is to feed the leader's insatiable appetite for bigger and better achievements. Narcissistic leaders literally have destroyed churches with building projects the churches didn't need and couldn't afford, again for no purpose other than to enable the insecure leaders to feel good about themselves temporarily. In the worst case, rampant narcissism will even lead to unethical and illegal behavior as the leader is driven to achieve regardless of the price that must be paid.

Numerous spiritual Watergates have been perpetrated by paranoid leaders who lived in a constant state of denial. Acute distrust between pastors and boards, guerilla-type church warfare, and an inability to enjoy genuine Christian fellowship are all the results of a leader's paranoid dark side run amuck.

Many codependent leaders have destroyed themselves in ministry as they tried in vain to keep an entire church happy and meet every other need while ignoring their own family and personal needs. Burnout, divorce, adulterous affairs, and physical illness can result when a leader fails to redeem his or her codependent behavior. It is highly likely that codependency has crippled more churches and Christian organizations than any other leadership malady.

Finally, there is the passive-aggressive leader who must live with the shame and consequences of his or her uncontrolled outbursts. Often, because of his or her erratic and strange behavior, the passive-aggressive pastor is forced to travel from church to church like an unwelcome itinerant preacher, never quite able to figure out why "those people" just don't love or want him or her.

This is but a cursory look at the troubles spiritual leaders may avoid simply by learning to overcome their dark side. It seems that a little effort is worthwhile if it can prevent even some of these negative consequences and preempt a possible leadership washout. We must take responsibility to triumph over our dark side. (p. 146-7)

McIntosh and Rima warn that no amount of success in leadership or ministry can heal the wounds from our unmet needs or pay our existential debts. Accordingly, leaders must identify their unmet needs and existential debts and deal with them effectively before they wreak havoc in their lives and ministries.

Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership provides a means to identify and address the "dark side" in the individual leader's life. I recommend this book for all leaders, all who are training future leaders, and all older Christians who provide candid and frank input to leaders.

Copyright 2002 All rights reserved.

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