As leaders, none of us are immune to behaviors and thoughts that can ultimately lead to self-destruction. As a consultant, I have watched many leaders, including pastors, head slowly but surely towards a crash taking their organization along with them. And the scariest part is they do not even know it’s happening. The following are 7 signs of a self-destructing leader. In most cases, more than one sign is present before the crash takes place. Do you see any of these signs in your life?
We often hear Proverbs 16:18 quoted: “Pride comes before destruction.” And guess what – it really does, and research continues to prove it! From Jim Collins book on How the Mighty Fall to Dr. Mortimer Feinberg’s writing on Why Smart People Do Dumb Things, all remind us that a self-destructing leader is often standing on a foundation of pride, and this pride contributes to all of the other signs of self-destruction noted below. I recall a time when a board member wanted to hire us to help an organization plan for succession, but the top leader put the brakes on it. Why? Because believed he knew better than everyone else!
2. Fear of feedback
One pattern of behavior I have often seen is that self-destructing leaders avoid feedback at all costs. Suggest a 360 feedback assessment, and they find 101 reasons why not to do it. They fear that what they hear may shatter the image they hold of themselves and may weaken their control of the organization. I remember one leader who, after completing a 360 feedback assessment, expressed serious anger. He could not accept that his team members were providing him with valuable critique, and he would not listen to their input. And, he eventually destructed.
3. Taking credit for success
Self-destructing leaders love to take credit for all of the success. Why? Because it reinforces the broken view they hold of themselves: they are the cause of all of the success that their organization has experienced. And, they believe if someone else is contributing to this success, it may weaken their position and control and people may start to value others more than them!
4. Blaming others for mistakes
“It’s always someone else’s fault.” That is the motto of the self-destructing leader. They have an image to maintain and, even though it is one built on self-deception, the self-destructing leader works hard to keep it going. This is often done by blaming others for anything that goes wrong.
5. Punishing those who disagree
Like a dictator in an authoritarian regime, self-destructing leaders have a habit of punishing and banishing those who challenge them. This can include marginalizing, demonizing or even firing. The end result is pretty much the same – people learn to not tell the king that he is naked! Many employees have told me that they don’t want to share their thoughts with a leader because they have seen too many people punished for doing so!
This is what psychologists refer to as social-distance – keeping the majority of people far enough away from your personal life and thoughts in order to maintain the illusion of success. After a leader has destructed, we often hear statements from clients like, “She was a private person,” or “We have never been to his home.” Such leaders compartmentalize their lives, separating public from private with very high fire walls. The self-destructing leader is a lot like the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz, just a little flawed human hidden behind a curtain using a lot of special effects!
7. Mental health issues
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are over 42 million Americans living with some form of mental health illness. I know many leaders who struggle with anxiety or depression and have gotten the professional help needed to manage it. However, there are leaders who have either an undiagnosed or unmanaged mental health issue which can result in destructive choices.
As leaders, every one of us has likely struggled with one or more of these signs. The difference is that a self-destructive leader manifests more than one sign and they have become a pattern of his or her behavior. As a consultant, I have seen self-destructive behavior showing up especially in leaders who are in their mid-fifties and early sixties. Some of them have led well for many years but are now showing cracks in how they think and lead, with sad results. If you are a self-destructing leader or you either supervise one or work with one, our experienced coaches can provide the guidance you need to bring about healthy change. Contact us if you would like to talk with one of our team members.
Jay Desko is the Executive Director of The Center and serves on the Senior Leadership Team at Calvary Church in Souderton, PA. Jay brings experience in the areas of ministry assessment, leadership coaching, decision-making, and strategic questioning. Jay’s degrees include a B.S. in Bible, a M.Ed in Instructional Systems Design and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Leadership.