Self-Protecting Leaders Can Kill the Spirit of Your Team

Kenny-Luck-smallI am one of those people who believes the best about other people.

In my career as a junior guy working his way up and as a CEO, I have met all sorts of leaders in the marketplace and, now, in the church world. I have noticed over the years that both leaders and managers in Christian settings (like churches or ministries) are engaged with much less cynicism by their junior people at the beginning of a relationship because there is this perception that a common set of spiritual rules are shared and believed. 

This makes employees in those settings feel more secure, more loyal and more trusting of their leader, his promises and the possibilities of moving personally forward and developing. “We” are in this great cause together and, after all, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” is in red letters, we work from the same playbook, and this is “God’s work” that we are advancing together. It’s all smiles, honeymoons and hope. Woohoo!

Then it gets weird.

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Over time (and it could take years), you begin to see and sense things. Your sniffer goes off, and you catch strong whiffs of self-protection or micromanagement or both. Friendly demeanors turn into businesslike interactions. Distance creeps in, meetings are missed or cancelled, and the next interactions that follow are directives being handed down.

To motivate the team, there has to be “spiritual reasons,” logic and precedent as well. The devil gets mentioned. Pressure comes into your team or organization to rally and perform for projects and agendas your leader will get credit for in the larger organization. Other talented leaders in the team stop leading and innovating and start administrating. The message both directly and indirectly is that we don’t need leaders or vision anymore; we need managers. The whole tone changes—professionally, emotionally and relationally. Hallway conversations increase. People turn over. People leave. Disillusionment and doubt set into the team.

What happened?

The Wolves in Your Team

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matt. 7:15, NIV). 

Jesus said to watch out for the wolves who outwardly look like sheep but inwardly are thinking about eating the sheep to get their selfish agendas met. These are the leaders Jesus’ younger brother Jude described so well as men “caring for themselves … following after their own desires, speaking arrogantly, and flattering people to gain advantage” (Jude 12-16). When it comes to your lead team (your shepherds), you don’t want a wolf in the sheep pen! They will chew on and chew up your best people.

These “misleaders” use people to advance themselves but are master politicos who present one face to senior leadership and a completely different functional face to the people they manage and lead. They are counting on the fact that you buy their act and that you won’t inspect their teams. Part of the reason you don’t dive deeper into their leadership style is that they overperform for you! Loyal employee or suck up? Shepherd or wolf?

Smart senior leaders know when they are in the presence of a suck up. Over-response, over-availability, over-communication, over-reporting and overwork that, added together, means someone or some team is paying the price to win this guy's prize. That prize is usually control, predictability, safety organizationally, positional consolidation or advancement from senior leadership. They are daft. They are always one step ahead.  They are always trolling for information. They are your best friend when you are useful, and you never hear from them if you're not.

The tell-tale sign you are in the presence of a wolf/suck up is that they do not have the spontaneous, good heart of a shepherd when it comes to advancing others in the team at their own expense or for the sake of the larger mission. It’s hard to go the other way when caught off guard or confronted with their patternThe result of letting a wolf roam your sheep pen unconfronted is this: Some of your best leaders are suffocated under the leadership style of a wolf and just disappear. They simply could not be developed or advanced.

Self-protection and fear over the implications is simply too big a risk for the wolf. They panic when someone else get a taste of success that makes them less visible. That’s when the fangs comes out, but just know: The fangs never come out in public. They come out in private spaces, and you might be next! 

In my experience with wolves, I have this advice: Pay little attention to what they say, and pay very close attention to what they do. Specifically, how do they treat othersSuper specifically, do they treat leaders below them the same way they want to be treated?

  • Do they develop and advance people?
  • Do people below them feel like they are growing professionally under their leadership?
  • Do they recognize and see the talents of others?
  • Do they let their leaders lead?
  • Do they micromanage?
  • Do members of their teams feel stifled in their ideas or initiatives?
  • Does the conversation with senior leadership have to be controlled and presented through him alone?

If you answered yes to some or most of these questions, watch your back. You may have a wolf for a boss or for a manager.

Kenny Luck, founder of Every Man Ministries and Men’s Pastor at Saddleback Church, provides biblically-oriented teaching and leadership for men and pastors seeking relevant, timely material that battle cultural, worldly concepts threatening men and God’s men. Follow Kenny and Every Man Ministries now on FacebookTwitter (@everyMM) and YouTube.

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