Here’s the thing about narcissists and weak leadership: they assume upon your silence. And that simply makes you complicit in the problem. A passive compliance to be sure. But the result is just the same. Weak leaders save their own skins in the end – at least for a time – and glibly allow other people to be churned up by the narcissist or toxic leader. That’s ultimately what makes them dangerous. People’s lives get wrecked. People’s spiritual lives get shipwrecked. And some people’s lives get ended, all because of weak leadership. And we see it time and time again in churches.
Time and time again we see bad leadership decisions made by weak leaders. And the church – and parachurch organisations attached to the church -, are sadly some of the worst offenders.
And the worst repeat offenders. Not simply the same leaders in the same places making the same mistakes. But other leaders in other organiations, knowing all of this, making those mistakes as well. It’s as if such weak leaders have never read books such as Chuck de Groat’s “When Narcissism Comes to Church“, or “Something’s Not Right” by Wade Mullen, or “A Church Called Tov” by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer. Maybe they haven’t. That would be too “leadershippy” of them.
As I wrote about during my expose of The Crowded House abuses by Steve Timmis:
A national review is a good place to start. But if all it does is sweep the house clean, pare it down to order, then it will have failed. That’s all a legalistic process can do. It will simply prep the house for even greater problems. Do the leaders have the stomach to go the really dark, honest, self revealing places that they have learned to avoid over the past two decades? That will take a seismic shift in their collective will.
And that’s the problem with a narcissistic leader. He (and it usually though not exclusively is a he, especially in churches), creates and sustains a narcissistic system. That’s what empowers him. And often this involves some sort family system dynamic to make up for some sort of lack of his own in the past.
You know the way that plays out: “Hey we’re all in this together!” Until of course, you’re not, and you’re cut, and the water closes over you like the Titanic slipping under the icy Atlantic waters. Maybe you’ll get the odd awkward phone call, but it’s clear that no one wants to talk about the one thing that you want to address with them. It’s as if it never happened. It’s as if you never happened. You don’t matter. That’s what makes it so painful.
As my wife observes, it’s the secondary trauma of not being believed, or having the issue diminished that is sometimes even more painful than the initial wound. As she says “Imagine a mother hearing her son say that her husband is abusing him, and the mother not believing her son.” That secondary trauma embeds the primary trauma to an even deeper level.
Granted, not everyone in such toxic systems is a narcissist, but these people only stay within that system long-term, because they play a part in feeding the narcissistic dynamic. Oh they may do it unwittingly, but let’s face it, we don’t know the true self within ourself, lurking below with all of its foibles. This systemic problem gives rise to the enablers, the deniers, the insecure, and those who think that by staying and doing a great job they are something ameliorating, rather than exacerbating and prolonging the problem.
And that’s where weak leadership comes into the mix. If the narcissist is leader in all but name, and often they are, they will gather a firewall of respectability around them, by forming a facade, a leadership facade made up of weak leaders who will bend to their will. It’s the psychological and spiritual equivalent of money laundering. “Legit in five years.” All of that stuff.
Their primary concern is that if someone should come onto the scene and run a white glove over the furniture surface that there will be no tell-tale grubbiness on show. “Hey, I’m accountable to my board, nothing to see here!” and all that nonsense.
So the problem is not the narcissist per se, the problem is the weak leadership that refuses to deal with the problem . Which is why weak leadership makes for dangerous leadership. Why dangerous? Surely those weak leaders under the thrall of a narcissist are just as much victims that churn out of the mince-meat maker?
Well only partly. Here’s how they are a danger:
A Danger to the Institution
How does it go? “Deep painful change or slow painful death.” You don’t get to choose whether you have pain or not, merely the type of pain you are willing to accept.
And in my recent experience, weak leaders will kick the can of pain down the road for as long as possible before they ever gird their loins, take a deep breath and take some immediate and necessary pain.
And why is it necessary? Slow painful death of course.