When Leadership Turns Deadly

January 8, 2021

Sometimes leaders’ actions are deadly. Their words get peopled killed, they kill ideas, they kill relationships. Maybe not via premeditated murder but, for sure, through negligence.

I hate writing this.

I have been stewing for days since the terrorism and seditious attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.  I have wanted to reflect in writing about it but needed to give myself time to de-escalate my emotions. I am still simmering, but I have some initial musings. It will not surprise any of you who know me that the lens through which I look at these events will be that of leadership. I have written a good deal in the last few months on the topic of leadership. Here. Here. Here.

And now, I am sad to say, I offer some thoughts on when leadership turns deadly.

Three leaders’ actions have captured my attention. One leader you know very well, Donald Trump, and two you may not, Carl Lentz and Ravi Zacharias.

Lentz was the pastor of the mega Hillsong Church in New York City. His church attracted thousands of young churchgoers with great music and upbeat preaching. It was hip and happening, attracting celebrities like Selena Gomez, Kevin Durant and Justin Bieber. Lentz was instrumental in Bieber’s spiritual awakening. But recently it all imploded in scandal as Lentz’s sexual affairs were aired and his “general narcissistic behavior, manipulating, constant lying and mistreatment of people” were exposed.

Zacharias, who just recently passed away at age 74, was a worldwide leader in Christian apologetics (the defense of the faith). He was a widely popular author and speaker. Vice President Mike Pence spoke at his memorial service, lauding him as a great evangelist “armed with intellect, girded with truth and love.” I used to have profound respect for the man. But unfortunately he was living a double life, as has been revealed over the last few months. It is so hard to imagine this towering intellect as a serial sexual harasser, but there it is.

I need not say anything further about Trump. He is and will be forever infamous and likely polarizing for generations.

All three of these leaders have killed things. Again, perhaps not intentionally, but certainly negligently through their words, posture and actions. The catalysts of their dark impact were narcissism and lies. Narcissism is the pursuit of personal gratification because of vanity, egotism, self-soothing or addiction. Lying is the necessary tool of a narcissist. Lies are the scaffolding that holds up their fragile ego. Lies are the sheep dogs that herd their sycophants. And lies are the subterfuge that cover up their evil and quiet their shame.

They weren’t always deadly. They evolved to this point. Like me and you they were normal sinners, but they progressed into fools and ultimately into practitioners of evil. Mind you, this is the fate of all of us who are not diligent in maintaining our integrity and humility. There is a biblical warning to this point. James 1:14-15 says, Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.”

Death. There it is. The end game of narcissistic, lying leadership.

Here then are the things that horrible leaders kill.

People

Ashil Babbit, 35, Benjamin Phillips, 50, Kevin Greeson, 55, and Rosanne Boylan, 34, all died as a result of the attack on the U.S. Capitol. And officer Brian Sicknick, 42, beaten with a fire extinguisher as he defended the Capitol, succumbed just this morning to his injuries.

The careless words and actions of leaders can unleash hell when they are inserted into an already feverish, chronically anxious, reactive society.  I thought of including Sean Feucht in my list. His misguided, defiant, pop up anti-masker worship experiences over the last few months may very well have become super spreader events of the virus. And yes, it is well within the realm of possibility that people will die as a result.

Influence

Duh. This probably can go without saying but these three men at one point each had enormous influence. And still, even after their collapse, people will swear by them. But when a leader is exposed as a fraud or liar or abuser, their fall from grace is swift and they find themselves reviled or pitied instead of revered.

Community

Destructive leaders divide teams, families and societies. We all have had relationships strained as loved ones have lined up behind the leader of their choice. I know of families who, at best, will need years to unbreak their relationships because of the polarization of terrible political or religious leaders. Dangerous or deceptive leaders breed herding. Herding leads to a catastrophic breaking of unity.

Ideas

Leaders ascend to their places of power in large part because of their charisma, but also because of the ideas they represent. People rallied behind Zacharias’ strong defense of the truths of Christianity. He gave people courage to believe and release from timidity in representing their faith. But when he crushed his devotees with his moral failure, he inadvertently dragged his ideas down with him. At the very least, fewer people will turn to his wise and persuasive writings.

Lentz was a leader in the resurgence of relevance of the church among millennials. His idea was that it was cool to believe. He made the church more credible, likeable and Instagramable. His awfulness, though, has led to a boomerang of believability among many of the same people he had drawn in. The world-wide influence of his mega-mega-mega church took a hit. And the credibility gap widened.

As for Trump, we know that millions of people were captivated by his idea of the restoration of greatness. His “Make America Great Again” was internalized by his followers as make ME great again. They grasped at his promise that the forgotten and ignored would finally be given attention. That the American dream would, once again, be made attainable for people other than the elite and rich. This idea will not die when he leaves power but, at least for now, it’ll be supplanted by images of sedition and terror along with tales of scandal.

I take no pleasure is writing any of this. I am sick about it. Perhaps, though, we can be jolted into accountability and vigilance…or at least conversation…through these heartbreaking events.

We always will need leaders. We will always turn to them. But right now, and maybe for some time, we need leaders who heal.

5 Comments

  1. Chris

    Hi Dave!

    My name is Chris and I attended Grace Church growing up and your sermons had a huge impact on my life as I grew up. I remember listening to your sermons on social justice and serving others and it striking a chord in me; most of my circle of friends as I grew older were not Christians and your sermons were the bedrock I drew from to defend my faith and Christianity in general. I found this blog recently and wanted to ask your thoughts on this

    I’m 31 now and have moved around quite a bit, and that defense has gotten much harder. When I look through my Facebook wall, it is inevitably primarily the Christians I grew up with as a child or parents that I knew and looked up to that are defending either (more recently) the lies of Trump or (last summer) posting “All Lives Matter” messages. If someone asked me today, “Why are you a Christian when your faith believes in these things?”

    I want to answer that my faith *doesn’t* believe in those things, that is just a reflection on a broken American church. But it’s incredibly hard to do that when, well, the vast majority of Christian leadership has either said nothing or loudly supports the actions.

    So my question to you is – what role do you think Christian leadership should have played and should strive for going forward on the topic of “leaders who heal.” And do you think healing (inside the Church) is even possible without tough, direct conversations around topics like systematic racism, white supremacy, etc.

    Reply
    • Dave Rodriguez

      Great questions Chris! You are certainly not alone in your wondering about the church and its leaders. I wish more church leaders would speak up and decry Christian nationalism and open up those tough conversations about white supremacy and systemic racism. I have wondered, now looking back, what more I could have done to raise the alarm. I sense you are in that group of us who feel as if we are evangelical refugees. People who hang on to the truths of Jesus and the Kingdom but feel estranged from the populism that has infiltrated the big “C” church. If that’s where you are, I’d love to stay in touch with you because there are some things brewing that you may find to be an encouragement.

      Reply
  2. Bill and marlene

    Thank you. We love you

    Reply
  3. Bruce Miller

    So true and so sad. And a clear warning to examine our own personal lives. Thanks for sharing your insights!

    Reply
  4. Steve

    Dave,

    Great post. You make some great observations and conclusions. However, I think it is a mistake to call these folks “leaders”, or at least leaders as you or I would define them. Rather, they are “people in leadership positions.” Perhaps this is too subtle a point, but true leaders do not have the failings you cite or lose influence, etc. But “people in leadership positions” do. Thus, it is incumbent on all of us to make sure we place true leaders in leadership positions. And, if they have leadership potential, but not all the skills, it is absolute crucial we mentor them regularly and critically so they become true leaders as quickly as possible, like Jesus did.

    I believe if we don’t get better at this, we will get more examples like the ones you cite, multiplied by their negative influence on their followers and the widened credibility gap.

    Reply

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