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Preventing Destructive Leadership: Some Reflections for Elders

September 7th, 2022 | 8 min read

By Matthew LaPine

We ought to be aware by now of the danger of destructive leaders. 2020 brought two important books addressing the issue, Chuck DeGroat’s When Narcissism Comes to the Church and Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer’s A Church Called Tov. Russell Moore recently wrote advice about how to choose leaders who won’t be corrupted by power.

But what are we doing to prevent leaders from becoming destructive? How can church elders see and address the sorts of character flaws that quickly turn into destructive leaders? I fear that too many church elders fail to see how a leader’s social patterns can result in destructive leadership. I want to talk about some of these habits by describing what I call relational reciprocity. My point is that leaders who become abusive often lack habits of relational reciprocity in their personal and professional life.

I define relational reciprocity as a commitment to and pattern of exercising habits of mutuality within a relationship, especially as it pertains to showing deference, helping, adapting, and sharing joys and sufferings.

Relational reciprocity involves giving and receiving, needing and being needed. A person must offer both weakness and strength, vulnerability and help. A person must take both the higher and lower position in at least some relationships.

Now it is true there are certain characteristics that are required by key leaders, especially in large churches. Institutional realities require decisiveness, engaging communication, and proactive vision. Roles at the top of the organizational structure can limit the availability and intimacy of relationships. But even within these limits, key leaders must practice the skills of deference and mutuality.

A good example of poor relational reciprocity can be seen in the second episode of The Queen’s Gambit. The orphaned chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, gets adopted by Alma and Allston Wheatley. Their relationship is troubled by a lack of reciprocity. Alma needs the relationship more than Allston. She must adapt to him; he does not adapt to her. He provides, and she shows him appropriate deference.

There are several clear signals of this dynamic in the episode. Allston is largely silent in it. He does nothing to welcome his new adopted daughter, preferring to sit in his chair reading a newspaper while his wife gives her a tour of the house. He silences his wife with a grunt when she says “I’m not allowed…” In another scene, while she is vacuuming, Alma lets out a startled yelp when she sees her husband arrive home early from a business trip. She runs upstairs to put on a dress before he can get in the house.

This relationship is a clear example of abusive power. Alma must adapt her life to Allston, not the other way around. There is no relational reciprocity here.

Not all relationships that lack relational reciprocity are abusive. Some of our most dependent relationships lack this sort of reciprocity but are oriented around care. But every adult needs relationships that have this sort of mutuality at the most intimate level.

Leadership as Influence

Churches sometimes prioritize influence as the hallmark of good leadership, preferring this over such qualities as ability to delegate, self-awareness, empathy, and wisdom. Good leaders are known by their capacity to lead from the front and to draw others to their vision. I heard one leader disparage empathy explicitly because, in his words, a leader is supposed to influence the follower, not the other way around.

Churches sometimes prefer this sort of leadership when they are unconsciously governed by the need to survive or the need to win. Influential leaders raise the status of the church. They allow churches to move fast and go big, drawing crowds of people into their ministries. But as Peter Scazzero says, fast churches have crowds not churches.

Influencers operate with poor relational reciprocity. They are always the leader or caregiver, but never trust others to care for them or open themselves up to vulnerability. They have the power to do things for others, and others are to show appropriate deference to their power. When things are going well, these leaders may seem heroic and omnicompetent. But the pattern turns destructive under high levels of stress.

Influencers possess so much personal power that they are not forced to learn hard things that everyone else is forced to learn. Most people need to learn to show deference to the opinions of others or people will not put up with them. But not highly influential people. They can assume they are right.

There are other things that less dominant people have to learn such as: taking the vulnerable role of initiating relationships with others (versus merely responding and networking), reconciling relationships (versus manipulative apologies), or criticizing openly (versus withdrawing).

In contrast to this vision of the influential leader, I want to propose that leaders must also cultivate the weak virtues of vulnerability and trust to avoid causing damage to the body of Christ.


Every key leader is naturally exposed to a lot of vulnerability. As they say, everyone loves the assistant coach, not the head coach. While a leader must be wise, a pattern of imperviousness to feedback can be a worrying sign of arrogance, insecurity, or both. Conflict is a key testing ground for how open a leader is to vulnerability.

Vulnerability is not merely admitting inability or suffering, because very competent leaders sometimes do not have these visible weaknesses. Vulnerability can be openness to the influence of others. Vulnerability may also look like intentionally opening up to feedback to see what others see. A leader with good relational reciprocity might see conflict as an opportunity. By assuming they may have a blind spot, they can begin a process of learning to see what they can’t see. If there is a pattern of relational responsibility, the leader may embrace the ongoing opportunity for sympathetic understanding and change. But by inviting ongoing input, they have the opportunity to turn critics into allies.

Insecure or arrogant leaders will see this sort of input as exhausting and perhaps even as divisive. A friendly critic may be labeled as insubordinate and pushed out. Leaders may ghost friendly critics because it is too stressful for them to endure the constant disappointment of others. Inviting input graciously is a more effective way of managing this stress. Slowly leading through stable relationships of mutual influence strengthens the integrity of the social system.

A related tendency is that of taking the moral high ground in an argument. A leader with poor relational reciprocity can assume that they have no blind spots that require time to overcome. This sort of leader may take the role of a third-party referee in a conflict, calmly explaining the conflict with emotional detachment. This emotional detachment keeps the leader from saying inappropriate things. But it is also self-protective. It does not expose the leader emotionally. A leader without good emotional intelligence can be blind to his own deeper emotional reasons for his views or decisions. Honesty about the leader’s own feelings is not self-sabotage, but a display of mutuality that can win respect, even when the leader must make hard decisions.

Leaders often assume that the power differential does not require the leader to explain his actions, even to concerned parties. Leaders sometimes maintain this power differential by explaining outcomes rather than reasons. Explanations make leaders vulnerable because their reasons might be wrong or insufficient. Leaders may appeal to privacy, privileged information, or protecting others, when they are actually protecting themselves. If personal and institutional integrity is the goal, transparency is crucial. Truth telling can bind and heal.


People with low relational reciprocity also have difficulty trusting others and delegating. Super competent and influential leaders are not always habituated to see and respect the perspectives or strengths of others. They delegate only in domains outside of their competency. Within their domains, their reflex is to take responsibility, to be everyone’s hero. Leaders can take too much responsibility in exchange for praise. A drive for affirmation can produce habits of attempting to save everyone. This does not build a team.

When the leader takes on too much, the seeds for the leader’s undoing are planted. The drive to save people leads to overfunctioning followed by disappointment. And when stressful seasons of leadership arise, the leader’s lack of trust and delegation means they are without help to share the load. Leaders with poor relational reciprocity have not learned the habit of trusting others to help them or the skill of asking for it. Key hires can feel like they are given responsibility on paper, but not trusted in the execution of those responsibilities.

These leaders may assume that they have enough competence and energy to save the ship and everyone on it. They quickly find out that this is false. Self-aggrandizing overreach produces angry and desperate uses of power. It is often the case that leaders move toward destruction precisely at the moment when the burden of leadership becomes too much. Destructive leaders are emotionally unhealthy leaders.

Alternately, leaders could form patterns of honoring others and entrusting them with responsibility and authority. They can spread the institutional burden. Leaders can benefit from and honor those who stand beside them in the conflict. Those with healthy relational reciprocity are open to the perspectives of others, trust their contributions, and spread the intuitional burden to trusted allies.

That sort of health is cultivated over years of relational reciprocity, not through a hire or a great public act of vulnerability. Isolated and public acts of emotional vulnerability can win back support by appealing to empathy. But relational reciprocity is a habit, not an act.

What Happens When Leaders Self-Destruct

A leader without patterns of relational reciprocity is bound to create insecurity and dissatisfaction in the congregation. Relational dissatisfaction breaks relationships. Nothing makes people angrier than when others are angry at them.

Dissatisfaction can quickly build on staff and in a congregation. But the power dynamics can keep this dissatisfaction from causing major institutional disruption for a long time, even decades. People who are powerless to change are forced to adapt, at least on the surface. A culture of deceit and flattery can develop, where these manipulative practices are necessary to get in the good graces of the leader who is not relationally accountable.

People will not necessarily verbalize their reservations until there is an institutional flash point. This builds slowly, but happens quickly. For a long time people are satisfied that good is happening within the church until a leader becomes unhealthy enough that he starts to do reckless or unreasonable things. The conflict that has been building becomes too much and the leader begins to lash out.

It is at this point that the elders of a church often double down on relational isolation for the key leader. Instead of spreading the burden of leadership and slowing down, they rely on the heroic leader’s vision or persuasive power for quick fixes to complex problems. They empower him by hiring others to handle care issues or deliver bad news. They feel that they need the leader to exercise greater force and influence rather than moving toward greater reciprocity and accountability. In turn the leader tries to become the hero that the institution needs, ruthless enough to maintain institutional efficiency and decisive enough to quell the anxieties of uncertainty.

One problem is that elder boards often do not actually know the key leader well enough or do not possess the level of self-awareness or emotional intelligence to understand how these dynamics are playing out in the organization. So, they become enablers of greater and greater relational distance and abuse.

In sum, it is deadly to have a leader in a place of primary power who has no relational reciprocity. This type of leader has never learned the skills of vulnerability and trust necessary to form deep trusting relationships. This leader is a star performer, not a member of the body.

But there is another way. It is possible to move toward a slower, less impressive model where leaders demonstrate patterns of relational reciprocity rather than increasing withdrawal and manipulation. We must not get caught in the glitz and glamor of shiny things. We must decide that cultivating a body deeply dependent on one another and on Christ is the role of a good shepherd. A good shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep know him.

Some Diagnostic Questions

  • Does the leader show a pattern of pursuing relationships? To pursue a relationship requires vulnerability.
  • Does the leader show a pattern of adapting to the needs of others, or only pushing others to adapt to his needs?
  • Does the leader show a pattern of helping others in ways that are sensitive to what people actually want or need? Or is the leader irritated when others don’t appreciate his attempts to help?
  • Does the leader show a pattern of asking for and accepting help? This again requires vulnerability.
  • Does the leader show a pattern of honoring others? This shows clear vision about the strengths of others.
  • Does the leader show a pattern not just of apologizing (apologies may be manipulative) but also of pursuing genuine change?
  • Does the leader show a pattern of fairly and openly criticizing others? Does the leader also take criticism well? Both of these require humility and vulnerability. Criticizing another person openly involves vulnerability because you could be wrong.
  • Does the leader show a pattern of sharing in the sufferings of others? Is he or she quick and persistent in following up on that shared grief? Or does the leader only share in the suffering in public spaces where credit is accrued for doing so?