Five Steps for Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership

fullsizeoutput_ac8In my previous posts on Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima‘s Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, I summarized their key assumptions in the book, the definition of the dark side, how the dark side develops, and five dark-side issues leaders often encounter. In this final post on the book, I turn to the third, and most hopeful, part of the book: “Redeeming Our Dark Side.” If reading my posts up to this point has made you despair of growing beyond your dark side, please make sure to read this part. As the book concludes, McIntosh and Rima suggest five steps to overcoming the dark side of leadership, which I’d like to summarize below.

  1. Acknowledge Your Dark Side (165-171): “Though it may sound simplistic, if we want to overcome our dark side, we need to start by acknowledging its existence and understanding the shape it has taken over the years. For many people who have spent a lifetime in church, this is not quite as easy as it sounds” (168). Christians tend to blame our failures on “the enemy,” minimize issues by saying “I’m forgiven,” or rationalizing our dark tendencies. However, until we name the dark side for what it is we will never grow through and beyond it. Like David confronted by Nathan the prophet, we must say here the hard words, “I am that man,” and then move through authentic repentance to growth.
  2. Examine the Past (172-180): “We are the sum of the experiences in our lives. The most successful and effective leaders recognize this and are able to separate fact from fiction in their childhood memories while understanding the role these memories have played in their personal development” (174). Because our past experiences often shape our deepest drives, an appropriate reflection on our past history with the guidance of the Holy Spirit can help us see motivating factors and historic patterns that shape us positively or negatively. This may lead us into a season of repentance, a need for conversation with someone in our lives, or inviting God into the broken places of our past. Ultimately, “gaining freedom from the power of your dark side involves extending forgiveness in some form” (179).
  3. Resist the Poison of Expectations (181-198): Expectations shapes our lives. Some are helpful and necessary, while others are imposed upon us by ourselves or others in ways that create a legalistic sense of obligation or a debilitating craving to proves ourselves that can be destructive. “If we are to overcome the power of the dark side, it will require resisting the poison of extrabiblical, unrealistic, legalistic expectations in favor of God’s liberating grace. We will need to identify the numerous sources of the expectations that bind us and then soundly reject then. Be warned. It will not be an easy task for those who have lived under their weight for many years” (196).
  4. Practice Progressive Self-knowledge (199-212): “In addition to the previous three steps, gaining any measure of control over our dark side will involve the ongoing process of fathering knowledge about ourselves through the practice of specific disciplines and the use of certain tools” (199). We must engage in spiritual disciplines such as Scripture reading, personal retreats, devotional reading, or journaling to know ourselves in God’s presence. Along with that, other tools, such as personality profiles professional counseling, personal accountability groups, or formal performance evaluations, can help us to know ourselves better so as to avoid ignorance of our dark side.
  5. Understand Your Identity in Christ (213-219): “Ultimately all of the previous four steps will leave us feeling frustrated and empty if we do not understand and accept our true identity in Jesus Christ. We must come to the point where we recognize that our value is not dependent on our performance, position, titles, achievements, or the power that we wield. Rather, our worth exists independently of anything we have ever done or will do in the future. Without the grace of God that is found in his son, Jesus, Christ, as Isaiah the prophet declared, our best efforts and most altruistic acts are like filthy rags in God’s sight (Isa. 64:6). Everything we might learn about our dark side will be without significant benefit if we fail to find our value in Christ” (213).

What do you think about these five steps to overcoming our dark side?

Is there something that’s missing, or does this cover it?

Which of these are most difficult for you?

Which of these have you benefited from?

Five Types of the Dark Side of Leadership

fullsizeoutput_ac8Continuing with my exploration of Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima’s Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, in the second part of the book the authors give attention to what they call “five dark-side issues experienced most often by leaders” (16). They group those dark-side issues into individual chapters that describe in greater detail what each of these issues might do to the leader. Here is a summary of each of those five types:

  1. The Compulsive Leader (103-109): “Compulsive in a leadership context describes the need to maintain absolute order” (105). The compulsive leader experiences difficulty with delegation, tending toward workaholism. They are conscientious but moralistic and may become judgmental. They are conscious of their status, looking both for approval and reassurance from others, yet learning toward anger and rebellion on the inside. The compulsive leader in the church setting relies upon administration and organization as the safety net for their fears of losing control, whether of staff, their board, or the ministry of the church. Moses is an example of the tendencies toward control seen in the compulsive leader.
  2. The Narcissistic Leader (111-118): “For the narcissistic leader…the world revolves on the axis of self, and all other people and issues closely orbit them as they get caught in the strong gravitational pull of the narcissist’s self-absorption” (115).  Leaders with this dark side tend to overestimate their own achievements and abilities while stubbornly refusing to recognize the quality and value of the same in others” (115). They are often driven by unmet needs for admiration toward the pursuit of success, and can be simultaneously over-inflated in their sense of importance and deeply insecure. In the church setting, the narcissistic leader will promote themselves, their endeavors and their gifts aggressively, and thereby make themselves seem like an essential piece of everything without which nothing could possibly succeed. Solomon is an example of the tendencies toward self-obsession in the narcissistic leader.
  3. The Paranoid Leader (119-126): “Paranoid leaders are desperately afraid of anything or anyone, whether real or imagined, they perceive to have even the remotest potential of undermining their leadership and stealing away the limelight” (122-123). Oftentimes, paranoid leaders overreact to criticism, guess at others’ motives, and rigorously root out those who seem to be against them.  The paranoid leader in the church will keep anyone else from preaching or do anything they can to keep their board from meeting without them. Saul, the first king of Israel, is an example of the tendencies toward suspicion seen in the paranoid leader.
  4. The Codependent Leader (127-138): Codependency is “an emotional, psychological, and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, practice of, a set of oppressive rules – rules that prevent the open expression of feeling as well as the direct discussion of personal and interpersonal problems” (133). Codependent people compulsively worry about the feelings of other people – even taking responsibility for others’ actions and emotions – while often being out of touch with their own emotions. Codependents are often reactive instead of proactive. “Ministry and Christian service organizations provide the perfect environment for a leader to focus on others to the exclusion of self. This often results in the codependent pastor or leader’s failure to car for himself, producing burnout and other debilitating maladies” (136). Samson  is an example of the tendencies toward emotional and relational stunting experienced with the codependent leader.
  5. The Passive-Aggressive Leader (139-146): “Passive-aggressive leaders have a tendency to resist demands to adequately perform tasks” (140), oftentimes based on a fear of failure. The passive-aggressive leader may have outbursts of intense emotions, manifest various forms of impulsiveness, and can become perennial complainers. In the church setting, passive-aggressive leaders radiate edgy irritability, often complaining about their workload, the people they work with, and the sort of things they have to do. They make impulsive decisions, while also procrastinating essential tasks, both of which can alienate congregants and volunteers from them. Jonah is an example of the tendencies toward emotional outbursts and impulsiveness often seen in passive-aggressive leaders.

Have you experienced this sort of leader in your life, particularly in your church? What might it look like for you to learn from that experience?

Now, look in the mirror for awhile, and consider what your own dark side tendencies might be. How can you bring those to God today?


How the Dark Side Develops

In chapter five of Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima explore how the dark side of leadership develops in our lives.

Though we may not be aware of its presence, we have been impacted by the dark side throughout our life. There are definite signs we can become sensitive to that will help us identify the unique ways it has developed over the years as well as the specific shape it has taken in our life. Often we are conscious of these signs in our motivations and recognize their influence on our behavior, yet we are not quite able to make a solid connection between them and their source. (70)

Things like “a drive to succeed, desire to be accepted, irrational fear, need to be in control, perfectionism, or various compulsions” (82) are signals of the development of our dark side.

While building largely off Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, McIntosh and Rima propose that the “dark side is inclined to be an overcompensation for needs that have not been met in our lives and develops as we attempt to repay the existential debts of varying degrees that we have taken on” (83). Below is their chart outlining the predictable pattern within the development of our dark side (79).


For each of us the particulars will be different, but the basic process will be essentially the same….Whatever it is that you find yourself plugging into those categories in the chart, it has almost assuredly led to the development of your dark side. When those experiences and influences are combined with the raw materials of pride, selfishness, self-deception, and wrong motives, we can begin to see how our dark side develops into a powerful, controlling influence in our lives and leadership. (82)

What is the Dark Side of Leadership?

fullsizeoutput_ac8Here is another excerpt from  Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership by Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima. In this brief portion of chapter one, “Blinded by the Dark Side,” the authors provide an overview of what they mean by “the dark side of leadership.”

The dark side, though sounding quite sinister, is actually a natural result of human development. It is the inner urges, compulsions, and dysfunctions of our personality that often go unexamined or remain unknown to us until we experience and emotional explosion…or some other significant problem that causes us to search for a reason why. Because it is a part of us that we are unaware of to some degree, lurking in the shadows of our personality, we have labeled it the dark side of our personality. However, in spite of the foreboding mental image the term dark side creates, it is not, as we shall see, exclusively a negative force in our lives. In almost every case the factors that eventually undermine us are shadows of the ones that contribute to our success.

At times the dark side seems to leap on us unexpectedly. In reality it has slowly crept up on us. The development of our dark side has been a lifetime in the making despite the fact that the assault by these powerful emotions, compulsions, and dysfunctions can be sudden. Like vinegar and soda being slowly swirled together in a tightly closed container, our personalities have been slowly intermingled with examples, emotions, expectations, and experiences that over a lifetime have created our dark side.

If not tended, the mixture will ultimately explode with great ferocity. For some, the lid can be kept on for quite a period of time before the explosion finally occurs. Others sense the strange stirrings and ominous bubbling deep inside, and not knowing for certain what is taking place, they periodically release a little of the pressure by lifting the lid in a solitary act of frustration or some other form of emotional release. Yet for others, those foreign stirrings deep within are denied, ignored, explained away, and even completely repressed until finally the container can expand no more and it explodes in a sudden and massive moral failure or some other unexpected, shocking, or bizarre behavior. This denial and repression along with the resulting emotional explosion are particularly common among religious leaders who feel the constant need to be in total control of their lives so they can minister effectively to others. Regardless of how sudden the explosion may seem, it has been in the making since childhood.

This description reminds me of John Ortberg‘s wonderfully challenging message, “A Leader’s Greatest Fear,” which was later turned into the brief book Overcoming Your Shadow Mission.

Key Assumptions on the Dark Side of Leadership

fullsizeoutput_ac8As part of my ongoing reflections on pastoral ministry, ministry in the North American evangelical church, and questions of ministry integrity (see my posts “Real Discipleship in a Consumer Church,” “Five Themes of Resilient Ministry,” and “Recovering Holiness“), I pulled a book off the shelf that I read over ten years ago entitled Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership by Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima. This is an outstanding book that is both immensely helpful and chilling. I want to share a few things from this book over this coming week, but let me start with the basic assumptions upon which the book is written. If you take them seriously, you cannot help but become reflective right away. It is, in one sense, an outworking of the prophet Jeremiah’s words: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

As in all works, there are numerous assumptions foundational to the development of this book and the reader’s understanding of the material presented. These are assumptions derived from our study of various subject matters, including our own personal experiences, a substantial array of literature on the subjects of leadership and personal dysfunction, and observation and conversations with those involved in the leadership of churches and numerous Christian organizations. Briefly, it is assumed:

  1. Every leader suffers from some degree of personal dysfunction varying from extremely mild to extremely acute.
  2. Personal dysfunction, in one form or another, can often serve as the driving force behind an individual’s desire to achieve success as a leader.
  3. Many leaders are not aware of the dark side of their personalities and the personal dysfunctions that drive them.
  4. The personal characteristics that drive individuals to succeed and lead often have a shadow side that can cripple them once they become leaders and very often causes significant failure. This dynamic is what has been labeled in this book the “paradox of personal dysfunction in leadership.”
  5. Learning about their own dark side and the dysfunction that have created it can enable leaders to address those areas and prevent, or at least mitigate, the potential negative effects to their exercise of leadership.
  6.  Scripture has much to say about the dark side of human personality and the motivations that drive us to achieve, which can be helpful to leaders in their efforts to understand themselves and overcome those areas of their personalities that might threaten their effectiveness as leaders.

[pages 14-15]

When you read these assumptions, what do you think? Do you agree with them or not?

If you read this and thought of someone else the entire time, then you should probably read through them again while giving attention to yourself.