Traits of Abusive Leaders

But he was such a good man…

Professor Wade Mullen, Ph.D., wrote a book on deciphering the veiled tactics abusers and abusive institutions use to maintain power and deceive victims into submission and silence. This book opened my eyes to the sketchy behaviors corporations and their ilk of lawyers and suits use to deviate blame, shift shame, and avoid guilt at all costs, all while saving face in the face of evidence, wrongdoing, malpractice, and abuse. 

In his book, Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse–And Freeing Yourself from Its Power, Wade ventures to explain just how problematic and ubiquitous these same tactics of hiding wrongs and protecting abusers are within the church. 

“Abusers and abusive organizations may concede the basic reality of the wrong—“Yes, this happened”—but quickly add statements that either soften their responsibility or promote their integrity: “We value all people and only want what is best for everyone involved.” If these concessions do their job, the accused will stay in power, stay in favor with the community, and stay far from the shame their actions deserve.”

There’s always that ‘but’ in our apologies, is there not? I believe it’s a defensive mechanism to protect our ego from one, being exposed for what it is, two, admitting wrong, and three, having to deal with the consequences of that initial or sequential wrongdoing we’re responsible for. 

I’m guilty of this as well. Many times over. 

I’ve apologized to others with the intent of protecting my image for the sake of my ego. No one wants to be destroyed in the public sphere or the public marketplace. Nowadays, being denied social capital is at times worse than actual capital because of ostracism from people on social media which, if left unchallenged, can last years, if not decades; or a lifetime. 

“I’m sorry I did that to you but you kind of asked for it.”

“I’m sorry you felt that way but that wasn’t my intention.”

“I’m sorry this happened, it did, and I’ll put it behind me. You do have to forgive me, you know.”

These are just a few of the facades and barriers we create and put up to defang the brunt of our consequences. We’re not only afraid of the ramifications of our wrongs but we’re resistant to any form of discipline, especially if that discipline is meted out by the victim of our wrongs. 

And this is where I came across an interesting list this week called the Traits of Abusive Leaders. I found it on The Speaking Out on Sex Abuse Podcast where the hosts interview Jimmy Hinton and Christine Fox Parker on the subject of abusive leaders. 

They pinpoint 23 identifiable traits abusive leaders can exhibit which, after a closer look, are patterns and behaviors we see in our own lives as well. I mean, I see a few of these in mine. It’s daunting. 

Take a look:

Doublespeak—Language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts or reverses the meaning of

words using euphemisms, inflated language, jargon, or just plain nonsense

Unteachable Spirit—Claims to want to hear people’s opinions, yet talks down to and/or argue with the people who share them; pretends to listen, agree, and learn, yet makes no significant change

Corrective Theology—Use meetings or written messages to correct things that were said by others

Semantics—Distort and distract from what they and others say and/or mean by parsing every word

others say while refusing to allow their own language to be dissected

Blame-shifting—Refusal to take real responsibility; often directly blames other people and/or use

statements such as, “They just don’t understand my heart,” or “You are not listening”

Demand Loyalty/Respect/Trust—Often remind others of all the good they have done even as they

demand unconditional and blind loyalty/respect/trust

Sabotage—Ministries are secretly undone, content they can’t control is criticized, relationships are


Distorted Relationships—Heavy demands may be put on relationships, relationships tend not to be

reciprocal, they may speak well of you in-person while talking badly of you when you are not present

Demand Unity—Sincere sounding calls for unity turn out to be demands for conformity to the leader’s beliefs, ideas, and preferences

Gaslighting—Specific forms of manipulation intended to cause others to question their perception; may take the form of “remembering things differently,” withholding information, denying having said or done something, and/or lying

Credential Flashing—Degrees, position, titles used frequently to establish an air of authority

Paranoia—Concern that others are undermining their authority, talking behind their backs, or leaving them out

Image Obsession—Inflated concern about how others perceive them; often takes the form of public

name-dropping (though in private they may berate the very names they drop) and building a façade as a godly and/or deeply religious person

Blackmail—If challenged will used whatever he/she thinks he has on the challenger to quash the

challenge; may take the form of forcing a resignation, tying severance to NDAs

Public Admiration of Others—Publicly make highly positive comments about others (often fellow

leaders/co-workers) while privately tearing them down

Entitlement—Claim the right to the highest-ranking positions without having to do the actual work to achieve the position

Absence of Conflict Resolution—When approached about conflict swiftly and deftly to turn the conflict into the other person’s problem entirely

Distress is Highly Distressing—Often unable to handle the difficult emotions of others and will shut them down swiftly

Purposely Provocative—Will intentionally provoke distressing situations/emotions for/in others to

accomplish their own ends

Multiple Personas—Who they are in public, private, and specific ministry situations changes as if they are chameleons; when confronted about this lack of authenticity they will deny having multiple personas

Persistent—Above all, abusive leaders persist, don’t take no for an answer, overtly or covertly, passively or aggressively pressing themselves and their agendas on others

Best & Brightest—While not necessarily the best and brightest by training or ability, abusive leaders

work to be seen as the best and brightest in every room they enter

False Vulnerability—self-disclosures about past sin, attempts to evoke tears and emotionality in others

Now you may have noticed that the descriptions above reflect an array of leadership abuse traits within any structure but the authors focus primarily on leadership structures within faith communities. Namely, Christian church environments. 

I believe it is critical to be aware of these deviations and character malformations because in the church we tend to value leaders based on their gifts instead of their character. If their performance and the results of their theatrics bring people to faith or balloons the attendance within our church circles, then, by all means, let us ignore their shouting bouts behind closed doors. It’s okay if the leader manipulates the board into giving him or her more executive and financial power without boundaries or accountability. It’s alright for the leader to exhibit multiple personas inasmuch as they visit the elderly, the imprisoned, and the orphan. It’s seen as a minor moral scruple when they sabotage relationships in the church, are obsessed with corrective theology; namely, his perspective of the ancient book is the only correct one, as long as the church stays full and tithes keep rolling in for years. 

I mean, just look at the new church building we purchased! Isn’t just grand? 

That is why it is so important to confront leadership abuse and abusers in every facet of society but more so within religious circles because leaders in this sphere are seen as intermediaries between us and God.

They’ve been given the keys to privileged access to the Divine. When they pray for guidance, Providence listens. When they preach the Word it seems as if the very Creator is present to reemphasize the gravity of the truth within the homiletical utterances of the minister behind the pulpit. When they counsel it is not the counsel of man but the very words of God.

And this isn’t a divinely ordained calling. These are positions, attitudes, and authority structures we create and honor and place men or women in the center of because we want palpable identifications of God here on earth. 

Because our reliance on the supernatural is only efficacious if we can find a man or a woman of God to corroborate our faith. When that happens we then elevate them above the rest and call them Men of God or Prophetesses of God. 

The problem with this spiritual sucking-up, if you will, is that the nefarious agents, namely, abusers who are talented, gifted, and amazing liars and chameleons of every form of good abuse their power every chance they get. They shape-shift their way through social tests of affirmation and acceptance, end up finding a way to lead the flock just by being performative. 

Their results speak for them and in a results-driven society, they tend to rise to the top. Every. Single. Time.

It always ends up this way because church people are too gullible, conflict-avoiding, and kind-hearted to confront one another on these issues. 

“Let us maintain the peace, please, brothers, let us have peace.”

That is why we must keep a keen eye on character more so than gifts

And I am not innocent here. I have exhibited quite a few of these traits as a leader. 

From unapologetic arrogance in being the corrective theologian in the room to being obsessed with how others viewed me in the church or para-church ministries. I’ve had my fair share of cringe-worthy public admiration of others moments, theologians and apologists I had never even met, who I would glorify and elevate to near-divine status. I avoided conflict because I didn’t want to confront the issues in me and less so in others, therefore so many issues would go without resolution in my circles. 

I was only an authority over them as a teacher or youth leader but what the hell was I supposed to do about their personal lives? I’m not a guru!

The host and co-host of this podcast asked the authors of this list if these traits are mistakenly attributed to abusers alone because they have exhibited them from time to time as well.

The authors of the list stated that we humans tend to dip our fingers into selfish or self-preservative behaviors from time to time but these are just regular human mistakes we tend to make. 

What they depict in this list of twenty-plus leadership character flaws are red flags that are persistent aspects of a person’s nature and how they deal with life and people on a daily basis. 

The abusive traits we exhibit from time to time ought to be contradictory to our character, not complementary to it. There’s a difference.

In a moment of weakness or stress, we may lean on a certain practice because of a weakness or stress. We’re not naturally prone to sabotaging relationships, yelling at people who disagree with us, obsessed with correcting someone else’s theology, obsessive double-speak behaviors depending on the group we’re with. We’re not known for having multiple personas, one at home, one with a secretary, one with the board, one with the preaching team, one with this and that group. We’re one and the same all the time, just more professional in one sphere and more relaxed in another.

Our morality doesn’t change depending on who we’re with or around.

We’re not given to moral virtue signaling in front of the church in the morning and then off to rob banks, abuse kids, and cheat on our spouse in the afternoon.

We are all guilty of exhibiting one or more of these traits but out of a moment or a sequence of character weakness. We can find redemption from this by desisting from them immediately, confessing the wrongs, and rebounding within the community. 

We’re here to restore people to fellowship, not power, remember that. 

But if you find you are exhibiting these traits on a daily basis, that you are wholly reliant on them to control the narrative in your life and that of others, perhaps it is time to admit that you are an abusive leader. Or that you are obsessed or controlled by abusive traits. 

And in that admittance, in that openness, it is time to seek help. 

You can be helped but you must want it. 

Again, we’re here to restore broken people to fellowship, not power. Fellowship helps build the individual. Power destroys the individual and their community.

So seek professional counseling today. Be it in the church or outside of it. Seek help to get your life and your character, back on track.

Because if you wait any longer your victim count will only increase with time. Eventually, you will lose the people you love and you will also lose yourself on this journey of life and faith. 

Seek help. 

Help Line 1.

Help Line 2.

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