Book Review: Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership

I meet weekly with a group of four men in a coffee shop for mutual accountability. One of the younger guys was particularly vulnerable a few weeks back after receiving an email encouraging him to apply for a job opening, and revealed that if he were actually able to get the position, it may end up that he could be in way over his head. After listening to each of us encourage the young man that he is more than qualified for the position and that he received the email from the employer because they want to hire him, the patriarch of the group; a pastor and church planter at retirement age, weighed in to acknowledge that every leader has an appointment, a meeting, a pulpit, or a conference room that they walk into on a weekly basis where they quietly think to themselves: “What if these guys realized I have no idea what to do?”
I suppose I shouldn’t have surprised, because this group’s entire purpose is authenticity and vulnerability. Nonetheless, something about hearing it from the lips of a leader I respect a great deal for his experience, wisdom, and poise in varying circumstances took me back. How did he know that I feel that way more than I would like?  Could he be certain that every leader has the same anxiety? Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima deal with these questions and more in their book Overcoming The Dark Side of Leadership.
Rima points to an increasingly competitive and demanding church environment as part of the cause of the problem. “At the core of the problem is personal ambition and the insidious desire to have or possess something that is not able to be possessed; namely, success.” Years ago, I heard pastor and author Rob Bell speak at a conference about the subject of “success.” He pointed out through various passages of Scripture that very, very few Biblical characters ever saw tangible results of their life’s work for God while they were still alive. Much of their legacy was determined after they had died. Bell looked around a room of 10,000 or more church leaders, and told us that very few of us would ever see “success” in our churches/organizations in our own lifetimes. His words have stuck with me over the years, and I continue to believe he was absolutely right. Ironically however, since then Rob Bell himself has lost influence and respect with most church leaders and theologians because his “success” seems to have taken him away from Orthodox faith. How did he end up there? What happened?
Rima states: “Because ambition is easily disguised in Christian circles and couched in spiritual language (the need to fulfill the Great Commission and expand the church), the dysfunctions that drive Christian leaders often go undetected and unchallenged until it is too late.” When I read this sentence, it put a pit in my stomach, because I feel I am very driven, with strong ambitions to do the very things that it suggests: to fulfill the Great Commission and expand the church. What keeps me from falling into the same trap many others have, and leave our church mopping another messy leadership failure?
I’ve learned in life that the first step in overcoming any problem is having an awareness that the problem exists in the first place. However, these authors do a good job of addressing that simply acknowledging the problem is not enough. McIntosh paints a great word picture of a family taking a road trip from Nebraska to Spokane, Washington. The journey can be made by taking several different interstate systems, but really the trip is going to be made by one of three primary routes. “The third route is a relatively straight shot. It carves at least a day off the journey, and with three young children constantly asking ‘Are we there yet?’ that is reason enough to take it. Before ever leaving Omaha, the family must decide what kind of journey it will be; relaxing and enjoyable or taxing and tiring. It is difficult and incredibly costly to change routes in the middle of the trip.”
Perhaps its because my own family is planning a cross country trip this summer, or because I have endured through impatient kids in the back seat enough times to know to avoid it if at all possible, but this particular reference rang true in my heart when I read it. I don’t want to have to change routes in the middle of the journey if I can help it. The authors give a few chapters of council for plotting a course, but I believe it can all be summed up by a leader finding their true identity in Jesus Christ. McIntosh points out that “Everything we might learn about our dark side will be without significant benefit if we fail to find our value in Christ.”
I know that I need to be reminded constantly that my significance cannot be determined by what I “accomplish” as a leader here on earth. My best and most impressive day is still nothing more than filthy rags before a holy and pure God. Yet in his Son Jesus Christ, I can stand before him redeemed, and welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven. This book as a great reminder of my status before God. May I never senselessly fall to the dark side, when Jesus has already paid it all on my behalf.


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