Why Do We Hang On To Toxic Leaders?

By: Stephen McAlpine

Let me tell you about the day I lost my marbles.

It was back in Grade Three at Palmyra Primary School and there was a marble craze running. Every recess and lunch time, the playground was filled with the clink of glass on glass and the battle cries of the victors and vanquished as we played “keepies”. Keepies was the term for when you played marbles and won the other person’s marble. And kept it. None of this gentleman’s handshake, all square, hand it back, after you lose. It was high stakes.

It was high stakes that I was keen to venture in. And venture I had. And I’d done pretty well. I had a sandwich bag of small marbles that I’d accumulated. All fairly common stuff. I’d like to think I’d done pretty well in the keepies stakes, and was running a good win-loss average.

The Crown Jewel

But the crown jewel in my marble collection was a big shiny Tom Bowler – the term given to a large marble, nay, the largest marble in the bag. It was opaque glass, creamy sworls with a blue streak running through. Much like an eyeball. The eyeball of a vanquished foe.

And it was my pride and joy. I carried it around separately to the other marbles. The collective sandwich bag would never do. It had its own small bag. And I was never going to play keepies with it. No way. It was too precious. I didn’t want to lose it.

No I didn’t want to lose it. And to be honest when a younger girl from school, all of Grade Two by the looks of it, challenged me to a game of keepies one recess time, and produced an equally impressive Tom Bowler (which meant the match up had to be like for like), then it was hard to refuse. My Tom Bowler needed a running mate.

And looking at her, all doe-eyed and Grade Two as she was, it was hard not to feel pity for her, and her impending loss. Even at that point I could imagine the soft clink of another quality Tom Bowler, nestled up in that special sandwich bag. She was a soft touch and I was going to teach her a lesson in marblery.

The Unthinkable

And, as you’re rightly guessing by now, the unthinkable happened. This young upstart, a full year below me in school, won the contest. I watched in horror as from a seemingly impossible angle, with an aim as true as an evil Cupid, she completed the keepies rules by hitting my marble three times in a row. I felt the blood drain from me as she walked over, picked up her Tom Bowler, picked up my Tom Bowler which was now also her Tom Bowler, and commenced to walk off.

The seven stages of grief hit me all at once. I couldn’t fathom it. My Tom Bowler, the pride of my collection, was gone. And so quickly.

It was then that I hit upon the near-sighted, short-term negotiating skills that have stood me in good stead to this day. I looked at the tatty sandwich bag filled with also-rans, chipped efforts, insignificant pee-wees, and assorted nothing marbles and I stammered:

Wait. What about I give you this whole bag of marbles and I take the Tom Bowler back?

And I held out the bag in front of her, shame dripping off me. Though by that point I was past the point of feeling shame. I was desperate. Shame would kick in later.

And that Year Two girl looked at me with the look of a woman who in forty years time would be selling a sucker such as I overpriced real estate on a flood plain, and accepted my exchange. I had lost my marbles. But I had my Tom Bowler. It was a victory of sorts.

Funny Story/Serious Meaning

Okay it’s a cute tale to tell. And clearly, despite the strand of truth running through it, I’ve embellished it. I really did lose that Tom Bowler. For a few seconds. I really did trade every other marble to keep my pride and joy, the one marble that gave me meaning in the marble stakes.

But I told that tale at the start of a talk I gave just two weeks ago for my organisation, to a gathering of ministry leaders who feel like they’re losing their marbles, losing their senses, over the toxic church culture they have come out of, in which the decisions that were made around leadership in their churches, were akin to my Tom Bowler story.

Many had come to the conclusion that the church denomination they are part of is constantly willing to trade every other marble in a work setting, – the also-rans, the chipped efforts and the pee-wees -, for the sake of keeping the shiny Tom Bowler, the leader at the top of the organisation who is the problematic or abusive leader. Seemingly at all costs.

And while this is not a problem exclusive to churches, my experience over the past fifteen years, indicates that the church is especially prone to it. And can use spiritual language to enhance and enforce it.

I have now worked in a number of organisations in which toxic leadership has been an ongoing problem, in which the Tom Bowlers had crushed many a pee-wee.

The unspoken – though in the end it is generally spoken – acceptance, is that the Tom Bowler in question is too central to the organisation to be let go. All stops must be pulled in order to ensure that this individual kept going. No sacrifice – generally of others – seemed too much. And sadly, it seems that evangelical, orthodox networks of churches are not only equally at fault here, often they’re worse.

Getting Rid of Toxic Tom

Except of course that’s not true. I hope you see the problem, and I particularly hope you the see the problem in the church. The attitude that any leader, despite their behaviour, is integral to the organisation and cannot be done without, is a myth.

In fact, it was during that period of leading the church through change, that I was in Sydney giving an evangelistic talk. It was all pretty swanky, a top drawer event on the top floor of a city tower, to a bunch of CEOs and business leaders. Later that day, sans suit and tie, I was walking through the CBD when a man approached me and asked if I had been the bloke who spoke that morning.

He was a CEO of a firm in town, and while not a Christian, was interested in the event and had been coming to that group for some time. We got to talking about his business, and so I thought I’d pick his brains about church leadership and how so often the big leader is always deemed necessary for the survival of the whole thing. And he told me this:

“Oh you mean a rainmaker. Harvard Business School gets asked this question by companies all of the time: “What do we do with the one guy in the org who makes us a lot of money, but whose behaviour is so problematic that other staff leave, and the staff culture is off-point. Can we put the rainmaker in a separate office and firewall him from the rest of the company and let him do his thing?”

As you can imagine, I was just as interested in the answer to that question as those companies getting in touch with HBS. So naturally I asked the question; What do you do?

“Sack him. Every time. The rainmaker is not worth it. He will destroy the culture of the company to such an extent that the rain he makes will not make up for the damage he does and the business will go into decline.”

Boom. Get rid of the rainmaker, the Tom Bowler. He’s toxic in the system.

And if that’s true of secular businesses – who by the way seem far ahead of the curve compared to many church organisations – surely it must be true of an entity that has Jesus Christ at its centre. Surely it must be true of an entity that proclaims a suffering servant from the front, a suffering servant who gave up his Tom Bowler status and lived and loved among the also-rans, the chipped efforts, and the pee-wees.

Yet so often it doesn’t happen. So often in the midst of a toxic culture crisis, those charged with the health and well-being of an organisation culturally and spiritually, trade the bag of marbles for the sake of the Tom Bowler. And as a result many a leader – whether lay or paid – loses their marbles themselves, and ends up needing psychological help.

Indeed the secondary abuse of not being believed for convenience’ sake, or being told that “Yes, the leader has problems, but look at the gospel good they are doing!” is almost worse than the primary abuse itself. It tells that person that if we – and by implication – Jesus, can put up with it for the sake of the greater good, then can you. And if you can’t put up with it, well perhaps its time for you to move on.

That’s what makes people lose their marbles: the inability – nay, the unwillingness -, of a system to do the heavy lifting and sort out the toxic leaders in its midst. The unwillingness of leaders to actually lead, and take a hit for those further down the food chain. The unwillingness of those in comfortable positions who have power, to use that power and lose that comfort for the sake of others. In the way that Jesus would have. In the way that Jesus did.

Get rid of your Tom Bowler for the sake of the other marbles. Sack the rainmaker for the sake of the organisation. It won’t be easy. But it will be right. Put an end to good people losing their marbles for the sake of expediency and some misguided – and out of cultural date – concept that without that gifted, but toxic leader, your org cannot succeed.

Article supplied with thanks to Stephen McAlpine

About the Author: Stephen has been reading, writing and reflecting ever since he can remember. He is the lead pastor of Providence Church Midland, and in his writing dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. Stephen and his family live in Perth’s eastern suburbs, where his wife Jill runs a clinical psychology practice.

Feature image: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash