Lead by fear?

In a Christian ministry, a godly man was trained for several years to succeed the founder when he retired. This protégé seemed to be a perfect successor. Once he was installed into the position he quickly won the hearts of many followers by his kind demeanor with other people in the organization.

This leader could fire a person when necessary, but he did it in a way that respected the individual and did not destroy him.

However, the board of this organization did not like this new style of leadership, believing that the necessary element of leadership was an authority that generates fear in its underlings, especially fear of being treated harshly or fired at any moment without explanation or defense. It is believed that without this harshness, the authority of the leader will never be respected and chaos will ensue. In spite of being the top authority in that ministry, the board removed him from his position effective immediately with the explanation that he was not harsh enough to be a good leader.

Insensitive aloofness

I once asked a leader of a large ministry, “Do you have any friends here?” He immediately responded, “Of course not. How can you fire someone if he is my friend?”

Being “thrown under the bus” by a colleague is all too common in Christian ministries, often to demonstrate the capability of insensitivity to hurting others or harshness to his superiors, perhaps to give evidence of the ability to make tough decisions in order to be promoted someday.

It is easy to discredit potential leaders in organizations, raise subtle suspicions or twist constructive criticism into antagonistic opposition. Gossip is prolific in many Christian ministries and spread by the leaders! Fear of being reported to superiors often keeps gossip under control among staff personnel. Sometimes this makes it difficult for non-leaders to discuss how to improve work situations without appearing to complain and thus get reported for insubordination.

Biblical leadership at any level is totally dependent on trust and perceived integrity. “Bad-mouthing” a colleague is common in conversations. Differences of opinion are seen as threatening or treasonous in the opinion of unquestionable leadership. Paranoia is the fear that staff people are prone to rebel against their absolute authority. There is no learning from the bottom up or attempting to win agreement from the top down, rather a demanding of total, unquestionable submission.

Fault finding manipulation

A second means of establishing this fear-based authoritative leadership is to find a fault, however small, in the work or life of an underling. Minor issues are then blown out of proportion to justify receiving harsh rebuttal or corrective treatment by the authorities. The demoralizing impact of this defacing treatment is intended to crush the staff’s self-confidence or self-image. The only way to get any self-respect back is to gain the approval of these same leaders. This style of fear-based manipulative leadership is all too common in Christian ministries.

Unquestioning fellowship demanded

“Teamwork” takes on the definition of a total, blind, unthinking submission and allegiance to an individual who alone can decide what the will of God is for others. Any questioning of this authority is seen as rebellion and sinful rejection of God’s anointed one and is treated with ostracism, reassignment and minimizing of influence.

Usually this person has the purse strings of the organization. The practice of the political “Golden Rule” is all too common: “He who has the gold, rules.”

Those who adjust have learned by watching how their cohorts were treated when they questioned decisions. Their defamation generated a fear ripple throughout the organization and taught everyone to be careful of taking any initiative or “constructive criticism.”

Institutional priority

Only the leader can think of effective ideas. The paternalistic patterns build security to some followers and too much confinement to others, who seldom last long in such an organization. When people leave they are seldom missed because they never were important personally. Only the organization is important. People are only to be used then discarded for someone more useful to the organization.

If many “successful” ministries are practitioners of this model of leadership, what kinds of missionaries are we sending overseas to replicate this necessary type of leader? Failure is deemed as not measuring up to this style of leadership.

Cliques of big leaders

These types of leaders think in terms of power-persons, shakers-and-movers, giants, and great leaders. Others have little value, or are made to feel like they have little value in comparison to them. Others are only there to serve the needs of the “big” leaders. What a contrast with what Jesus said!

What about Jesus?

Once two ambitious disciples wanted to be the highest authorities in the universal kingdom of Christ (Mark 10:37). Apparently, all the disciples wanted the same authority (Mk 10:41). Jesus takes this opportunity to teach His leadership model, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them” (Mar 10:42 NKJ), that is, the style of leadership mentioned earlier in this article.

Then Jesus makes one of His strongest prohibitions: “Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant” (Mar 10:43 NKJ).

The secular leadership model should be found nowhere among Christ followers in families, Christian institutions or church organizations. Peter never forgot this lesson when he wrote, “nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1Pe 5:3 NKJ). “Lording over” means to “bring under one’s power, to subject to oneself or master, to hold in subjection, or gain dominion over.” Do you think someone can lead without threats, or demanding total unquestioning submission to a leader?

Rather Peter commands, “but lead them by your own good example” (1Pe 5:3 NLT), or by being their “servant” (Mk 10:43) committed to meeting the needs of others, rather than manipulated them by open or subtle threats to meet the leader’s needs. His measure of success is not bigness, but by building a reputation of relationships: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35 NKJ).

However a leader’s staff perceives his style of leadership, all those under his responsibility will attempt to duplicate his leadership style throughout the organization. The more a person can bring others under their authority however cruel the tactic, the more likely he will be seen as a “great leader” and rise in the organization. As long as such an intimidating leader is successful followers tend to swallow their hurts and pride, just to be part of something big or popular.

Do you believe Christ’s words will work in any organization? If one does not believe what Jesus said, then His directives will be ignored and whatever leadership style brings “success” will become the final authority.

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