How Do You Lead Without Being Toxic?

I’m afraid many of us in the church are providing toxic leadership.

In his notable book Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton states, “When relief does not transition to development in a timely way, compassion becomes toxic.”  I wonder if something similar could be said about leadership.  When leadership does not transition to development in a timely way, it becomes toxic.  

Not on Purpose

We hardly intend to, but we can hurt those we seek to help.

Part of this is due to imposed expectations.  As leaders, people expect us to have the answers.  They look to us for vision and direction.  They seek us out to solve their problems and provide creative solutions.  And, more often than not, we are happy to meet these expectations without objection.  Another part of this is due to internal gratification.

The truth is, we like providing answers, casting vision, solving problems, and receiving all the admiration that comes with doing so.  It feels good to be needed.  More than that, being able to deliver what people need is what legitimates our leadership.  It’s what makes us feel competent.  It’s also what makes our leadership toxic. It feels good to be needed. It’s also what makes our leadership toxic. Click To Tweet

Lessons from a Balance Bike

Teaching my oldest son, Tighe, to ride a bike last summer is a case in point.

I tried to do everything right.  Tighe hopped onto his new bike.  I stood alongside him, my hands on the handlebars and the back of the seat, positioned to help guide him.  Slowly he lifted his feet, began peddling, and we began moving down the street.  The only problem was that he was leaning entirely on me!  Despite my best efforts to straighten him out and get him upright, he kept leaning my direction.  After going up and down the street a few times, I called it quits.  I was drenched with sweat, my back was aching, and I was totally exhausted…and honestly, a bit frustrated at his lack of progress.

This pattern continued for an entire week.

Each day I would up my commitment and intensity level to ensure that he would succeed.  His success or lack of success became my success or lack of success.  And he felt all the pressure that came with that enmeshment.

One day while I was driving home from work I had an idea.

I pulled into our garage, took the pedals off Tighe’s new bike, and gave him some new instructions.

Tighe, the last several nights we’ve been working really hard on learning how to ride this bike without much progress.  I’ve put too much pressure on you and myself and we’ve both ended up really frustrated.  I am really sorry.  But I think I’ve got a way to start over.  See, the problem is you don’t know how to balance yet.  And balance is the key to riding a bike.  So here’s what you are going to do.  You are going to learn how to balance with this bike by pushing off with your feet and coasting on the driveway.  You can practice as much or as little as you want.  It’s totally up to you.  I’ll put your pedals back on once you can coast all the way down the driveway.   

You want to know how long it took for him to learn how to ride???

One week.

Tighe practiced every single night and after one week I put the pedals back on his bike and he literally rode off down the street without any assistance at all.  There was no running on my part.  No sweating.  No badgering or pressuring.  Not an ounce of frustration.  I had simply created the right conditions for him to learn a new skill.  But he had put forth the effort and accomplished it on his own.  And he knew it.  He beamed with pride knowing it had been his hard work and effort that led to this new ability.

The Heavy Lifting

I’ve come to the conclusion that the shift I made in converting my son’s bike into a “balance bike” has huge implications for missional leadership and discipleship.  Often times our default is to run alongside others allowing them to put all their weight on us.  With good intentions and because we genuinely care, we end up doing most of the heavy lifting.  We might start out excited and enthusiastic, but typically we end up exhausted, sweaty, and burned out.  We end up frustrated.  And so do the people we are running alongside.

I’m convinced we need to be giving out more balance bikes.  Instead of perpetuating toxic leadership by running alongside people and bearing all their weight, we need to learn how to give the work back in a way that truly empowers people to act on their motivations.  To clean up our leadership, however, we will need to learn how to STOP, START, and SURRENDER.

To avoid toxic leadership, STOP playing the hero.

Many of us are accustomed to swooping in, taking other people’s problems upon ourselves, playing the hero, and then receiving credit for whatever success was the result.  Such “support” ultimately cripples others, fosters codependency, and feeds our own ego.  Jesus never did this.

Need a Hero?

It’s interesting that our Savior didn’t have a savior-complex.

In Matthew 8 Jesus runs away from a needy crowd and sails across the lake instead of meeting more people’s needs.  In John 6 Jesus challenges a hungry crowd who had become reliant upon him for the wrong things.

If we are going to live and lead like Jesus we will need to have a clear understanding of where our responsibility starts and ends.  We will need to die to our savior-complex and need to fix other people’s problems.  We will need to learn how to come alongside others, providing the right resources and the right amount of encouragement for them to flourish.  Rather than playing the hero, we must become mentors who allow others to be heroes.

To avoid toxic leadership, START giving out more balance bikes.  Jesus knew that giving work away was essential for making disciples.  As such, he refused to do things for his disciples that they were capable of doing.  Jesus was also comfortable with failure.  Jesus refused to rescue his disciples from failure knowing that the lessons learned would prove invaluable.  Throughout all of this Jesus remained present.  He didn’t abandon his disciples to figure it out on their own.  He showed them, taught them, resourced them, and challenged them.  It wasn’t about less engagement, but a different kind of engagement—one that required more wisdom, discernment, and more ingenuity than standard weight bearing tactics.

Jesus was masterful at giving out balance bikes.

In Matthew 14, for example, the disciples command Jesus to send the crowds away in order to buy food.  Jesus doesn’t do what they want.  He responds by giving the work back to his disciples.  They do not need to go away.  You give them something to eat.  

If we are going to learn how to disciple and lead like Jesus, we will need to learn how to say with increasing frequency, You give them something to eat.

To avoid toxic leadership, SURRENDER outcomes.

At the root of our failure to give work away is an inability to surrender outcomes.  We often overextend ourselves or end up relationally enmeshed because we want to ensure a certain result.  We can’t bear to lose our investment in others.  But Jesus never lived this way.

Jesus was able to surrender outcomes because his identity wasn’t riding on his disciple’s success.

Let the dead bury the dead.  

Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor.  

Jesus allowed people to walk away sad.

He gave the work back to people and allowed them opt in or out.  We need to be willing to do the same.  When we give out a balance bike, we have to learn to be okay if they choose not to get on the bike and practice. Jesus allowed people to walk away sad. Click To Tweet

Reflection Questions

  • What areas of your leadership have become toxic?
  • Where is God inviting you to stop playing the hero?
  • Where is God inviting you to start giving out more balance bikes?
  • Where is God inviting you to surrender outcomes to him?
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