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.

A Leader’s Greatest Fear

This past Tuesday at our staff meeting at Eastbrook Church we watched an outstanding message on leadership drawn from the book of Esther by John Ortberg, Senior Pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church.

Ortberg’s message explores what he calls the leader’s shadow mission, or what others have called the dark side of leadership. I believe this is one of the most important, yet often neglected, aspects of leadership. It is important because our shadow mission can subtly ruin us and our ministry. It is neglected because of the humility and painful effort required of us to face our darkest, hidden brokenness.

Watch it here.

A Leader’s Greatest Fear from ehdesign on Vimeo.