Some thoughts on mask fights and terrible leadership

August 17, 2020

Yesterday at Whole Foods a commotion broke out. Lots of yelling. Everything came to a halt as shoppers nervously watched it go down. A hush came over the place as the confrontation escalated. It was over masks. A woman had worn a mask to gain entry to the store, but once inside inexplicably removed it. An employee asked her kindly to please put it back on. The woman erupted in indignation and rage…all the while holding the mask in her hand.  It was unnerving. Unsettling.

Later, as I was mowing my lawn, in my thinking space, I fussed about it and all the other painful, confusing and deadly things that have played out in our lives and the world over the last 6 months.

I’ve always known we were a chronically anxious people. But it seems our “normal” level of chronic anxiety has now devolved into an apocalypse of anxiety. The faces of the shoppers in Whole Foods spoke that loud and clear. We are ill with a “nationalized neurosis.” The emotional walls are caving in. We are expressing a hair trigger reactivity. And since “anxiety escalates by the quantity and speed of change” we can expect more of all of this to come.

Compounding our anxiety and reactivity is the fact that “institutions traditionally used to absorb anxiety are no longer available to us.” We have been distanced from schools, family, community, church, and sports. Our scaffolding, the structure that holds us up in tough times, is mostly virtual.

Why are we here?

We can’t simply blame all this on the virus, though it certainly has wreaked havoc. No, I believe there are two phenomena that have emerged (maybe they’ve always been there) that have compounded our misery. They are a cataclysmic failure of leadership and a grotesque level of selfishness.

We need the strongest, most courageous leadership imaginable right at this moment. But in many places, it is just gone. We simply have too many terrible leaders.

We need a communal heart that allows us to be in this together and support each other, through what my son and pastor, Barry Rodriguez, calls self-giving love. But, alas, our toxic American individualism is tearing us apart.

I want to talk about the leadership issue in this post, but stay tuned for some thoughts on communal selfishness in a future post.

So, about leadership. I dig it. I am a sucker for good leaders in all institutions. Companies, churches, education, and government. I love the writings of Jim Collins and Patrick Lencioni, among others, but the one leadership book that is at the top of my list is Failure of Nerve by the late Edwin Friedman. I have taught its content, given it away and quoted it more than any other book of its kind. As a matter of fact, if you see anything in this post surrounded by quotes, it came from Friedman’s book.

I roll my eyes when people get worked up about flattening leadership hierarchies. It doesn’t work. People NEED someone on the point.   “Leaders function as the immune system of an institution.” Right now, we need good leaders because we are a sick nation with emotional sepsis. We are an unorganized, divided, ill, furious mess of straggling individual humans left largely to our own devices.

Yes, look around and you’ll see many good, courageous humble leaders at all levels of society. Case in point, John Lewis. But they seem few and far between, especially in our governments.

At a time when we must have courageous, others-focused, integrity-filled leaders, it feels like we are bereft.

Where’s our scaffolding? It’s an unnecessary tragedy.

With some help from Edwin Friedman then, here are, what I believe to be, the 5 signs of terrible leadership.

  1. Terrible leaders are blame shifters.

Terrible leaders are unable to own anything. They “constantly feel and express victimization.” They are unable to see the way they contribute to the issues of the community. Unable to be vulnerable, what you get from a terrible leader is a constant drone of “woe-is-me.”

  1. Terrible leaders are herders.

They create an us vs. them mindset that promotes communal suspicion rather than a unifying call to action. They nurture their loyal herd. It’s always “are you with me or against me?” Terrible leaders traffic in conspiracies, plots and collusions.

  1. Terrible leaders lack differentiation.

They cannot get out of the way of the angst-filled dominoes that are always falling toward them in the midst of chronic anxiety.   They cannot separate themselves from the “emotional processes going down around them.” Terrible leaders are, thus, unable to show a “non-anxious, well principled presence.” And cannot show a “way out with clear principles and vision.”

  1. Terrible leaders are selfish.

With them it is rarely we and mostly I. They are self-aggrandizing and self-protective. They are easily hurt “injustice collectors”. Some can be weak and lazy, unable to muster the grit necessary to plow forward on the point.

  1. Terrible leaders are dishonorable.

Terrible leaders lack integrity. They tend to be morally deficient. They frequently are dishonest and, almost always, stretch the truth to manage perceptions. Too often terrible leaders are hostile, unforgiving and discriminatory. Behind them they leave the carnage of relationships.

… sigh… I just feel sick in my stomach having written all that. In my 42 years of community service I have experienced too many of those kinds of terrible leaders. I have plenty of stories. And embarrassingly, at times, in my weak moments, I have displayed some of those characteristics myself. I’m sure some folks I have led could tell you.

But never have I felt the impact of terrible leadership around us as I do right now.

What we need at this moment in history are leaders who are vulnerable and willing to take the blame and the heat. Leaders who squash communal suspicions and disunifying conspiracies. Leaders who will throw themselves into the battle with courage and grit. Leaders who are honorable…who tell the truth, forgive, are kind and morally strong. Leaders who display a non-anxious, well-principled presence.

That’s what we need.  But right now, at the highest levels of our government and organizations, I don’t see much of it.

And until we demand that kind of leadership, our apocalypse of anxiety will go on unabated.

And we will die more every day in every way.















1 Comment

  1. Rob Eggers

    I absolutely agree that we need strong leaders that display all of those characteristics that you reference…honorable, truth telling, kind, and morally strong.

    Unfortunately those of us who attempt to be that type of leader are the first to be criticized for not being inclusive or loving. People have all chosen their true north…and unfortunately most of it doesn’t point to Christ.

    We live in a world that no longer accepts the middle…you are either one extreme or the other. No one wants to have a logical conversation that allows for perspective or grace! Sad times.



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