Monday, December 8, 2008

Paranoid Leadership Styles and Church-Owned Institutions

“Kings who make speeches about submission only betray twin fears in their hearts: They are not certain they are really true leaders, sent of God. AND they live in mortal fear of rebellion,”

Gene Edwards, A Tale of Three Kings (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992).

So what happens when the big woman or big man on top is paranoid? And has a paranoid leadership style?*

Unfortunately, if this leader is in a church or a church-owned institution, don’t expect a lot of immediate action from those in authority over him. Not even when the leader inflicts considerable pain on others (as paranoid leaders are wont to do), or when he drives the institution he leads into the ground.

I bring up the church context of paranoid leadership not only because of my own professional concern with churches and the academy. I do so because a surprising amount of the literature being published now about paranoid styles of leadership explicitly addresses the church context.

The growing body of literature about paranoid leaders within churches and church-owned institutions suggests that the presence of paranoid leadership within churches and their institutions is a serious problem. And it’s a problem that grows more intractable as churches and church-owned institutions (including church-sponsored universities) adopt the CEO model of leadership. There are strong parallels between the corporate model of CEO leadership and the paranoid style of leadership. As Matthew C. Wells’ Parallelism: A Handbook of Social Analysis (XLibris, 2002) notes, the corporate CEO model of leadership and paranoid systems of leadership share paternalistic presuppositions about what good leadership is all about (

Wells indicates that paternalistic leadership systems always glorify and idealize the big woman or big man on top—the Freudian parent-ruler. Paternalistic worldviews are inherently hierarchical and anti-democratic. They militate against the fraternal style of leadership of a democratic system, which seeks to empower all citizens. They assume that the big papa or big mama on top knows best, and the obligation of those ruled is to submit and obey, not to question, think, or take any initiative independent of the big mama or big papa on top.

Though Western nations pride themselves on their democratic structures, in Wells’ view, the many Western institutions remained deeply tinged with paternalistic (and thus anti-democratic, anti-fraternalistic) presuppositions. Wells notes that the corporate world continues to structure itself on hierarchical, paternalistic principles akin to those of monarchical or theocratic institutions (p. 30).***

Paternalistic worldviews and the social structures they spawn are also heavily gendered. Because of their strong investment in the fantasy of the big man (big woman) on top, paternalistic systems reward “masculine” traits and punish “feminine” ones—particularly when the latter are exhibited by men. Paternalistic institutions view the world through a rigid optic of good-evil, black-white, male-female. “Good” men (or "good" women cast in the mold of paternalistic men) are tough, strong, macho, aggressive, powerful, and decisive (p. 21). “Bad” men display “feminine” characteristics such as softness, weakness, or maternal behavior (p. 22).

The growing body of literature about the paranoid style of leadership within churches and church-sponsored institutions indicates that this leadership style finds a comfortable home within institutions that are heavily gendered, with males (and women molded in the male image) on top and females (including men stigmatized by paternalistic leaders as “feminine”) on bottom. Churches and church institutions produce and protect paranoid leaders because they give privilege to the male, particularly when he bullies, dominates, divides and conquers.

Churches and church-owned institutions—including church-owned universities—gravitate towards the CEO model of leadership because that model incorporates paternalistic presuppositions that are equally congenial to church leaders. The hierarchical, top-down leadership style of the corporate business community mirrors the hierarchical, top-down leadership style of churches, and vice versa, because both are rooted in paternalism and its gender-biased assumptions about social reality—assumptions that the world works best when it has a big man on top, or a big woman created in the image of the big man.

For the preceding reasons (and to return to the analysis of academic institutions), a church-owned academic institution that finds itself led by an out-of-control paranoid leader cannot expect much assistance from the church sponsoring that institution, or from leaders of that church, or from church dignitaries who sit on the governing board of such a church-owned university. Even when the behavior of a paranoid leader of a university is clearly causing considerable suffering to others, or is so aberrant that the decisions made by the paranoid leader are likely to endanger the university, church officials and governing boards are likely to uphold the leader until her or his behavior becomes egregiously toxic.

They are likely to do so because questions about out-of-control paranoid leaders are far too likely to lead to probing questions about the paternalistic assumptions that underlie church leadership and leadership in church-owned institutions. If those probing questions are entertained, they lead in turn to substantive revision of how the church and its institutions are structured—they lead to reform, with economic implications. It is easier to hold the line, while engaging in impression management and issuing bland statements about the institution’s commitment to democratic principles.

How do those who serve within a church-owned academic institution led by a paranoid leader recognize what is happening to their institution? What are the signs of an out-of-control paranoid university leader? How does one describe the paranoid style of leadership?

Everything has to be about the leader. Paranoid leaders take their own inner misery—their insecurity and pathological distrust of everyone around them—and spread it around. When a paranoid leader is at the helm of an institution, the inner drama of the leader is all that counts. The entire organization must be made to respond to that drama on a daily basis, or the leader becomes even more intensely paranoid.

When things work well, the paranoid leader is convinced by the silence of the well-functioning university she head that people are plotting against her. When leaders she appoints are doing a good job and the organization is running smoothly, she becomes convinced that they are seeking to usurp or authority or rival her.

The paranoid leader is intensely unhappy (which is to say, intensely distrustful and out of control) when things are not upside down and torn apart. Because the inner drama of the paranoid leader must replicate itself all around that leader, to convince the leader that she remains on top and is not being subverted, the paranoid leader will go so far as to produce artificial crises as a justification for expelling a demonized employee on whom she has cast suspicion. Or she will tear everything up in order to produce crisis—for example, by repeatedly removing good leaders from her team only to appoint leaders incapable of doing a good job.

Everything must be kept in chaos. This is the only way the paranoid leader can reassure herself that she remains on top. There is constant disruption, constant tearing up of leadership teams and of well-functioning structures within the organization she leads. Those working for the paranoid leader are constantly subjected to ever more refined loyalty tests and loyalty oaths. The paranoid leader will even spend quite a bit of her time and energy devising tests for those on whom her suspicion has fallen. She will create traps for these hapless employees, and will urge others on her team to engage in plots to try to ensnare someone of whose disloyalty she has become convinced, in the inner drama that determines all of her choices.

Divide and conquer is the order of the day. The paranoid leader will deliberately sow seeds of discord within her leadership team and in the institution she leads, in an attempt to assure her own dominance. She will externalize her paranoid inner drama in scripts shared with others, in which she paints now one and then another of her subordinates as the perceived enemy, as malicious, as incompetent, as disloyal to her and out to get her.

As Wells notes, paternalistic systems thrive on pitting one against another: “Balanced rivalry typifies all paternalistic systems because paternal authority is maintained through a strategy of ‘divide and rule’ (p. 25).” Wells also suggests that paranoid leaders deliberately cultivate discord in their leadership teams, in order to control those who report to the leader:

This tendency towards conflict often leads to what has been described as the paranoid leadership style. Because individuals are continuously played off against one another, there is invariably a tendency towards conspiracy. This fostering of conspiracy at all levels of society ultimately leads to a rise in the level of paranoia. This as well can be seen in the proliferation of intrigue, conspiracies, and counter-conspiracies, as well as conspiracy theories (p. 26).**

The paranoid leader will appoint subordinates to leadership positions not because they are competent, but because they have utilitarian value to the leader. She will seek to surround herself with the less competent and the venal because they can more easily be played against each other and manipulated to keep her inner drama on the table as the driving agenda of the organization.

She will actively seek out damning information about those she appoints to leadership positions, so that she can better control these leaders and prevent them from plotting against her, as she fantasizes that those on her team do. She will pit the worst members of her team—those she can most easily control—against the best, those concerned only to do a good job, whose professional competence demands that they challenge her when her paranoid needs insist that they sabotage their own good work to assure her of their loyalty.

The leader also gleefully uses spies. These are usually people who have learned to be adroit about massaging her paranoid ego. They are trustworthy advisors precisely because they tailor their reports to keep her paranoia well-fed. They are, in short, accomplished liars and game players whose misleading reports the paranoid leader chooses to believe, because those reports reinforce the paranoid fantasies of the leader.

■ Character assassination is routine. Competent, hard-working employees who lack a taste for the blood sports of vilification and intrigue in which the paranoid leader excels should expect to find themselves targeted by the out-of-control paranoid leader. Under the governance of a paranoid leader, such employees commonly find themselves targeted for no apparently reason at all, or because their good work is seen by the leader as a threat, as a suggestion that she is not in ultimate control or cannot do the job of the employee even better.

The paranoid leader will actively work to solicit negative information about such an employee. If the employee is a member of her leadership team, she may well appoint an easily manipulated, unscrupulous, ethically challenged employee to an associate position, so that this employee can report on and undermine the leader he or she is appointed to assist.

The paranoid leader sometimes even forces co-workers to generate bogus reports of incompetence regarding the employee she is currently targeting. She may produce copious files of manufactured “documents” to demonstrate that employee’s malfeasance, and to convince her board that she is justified in destroying the job and/or career of the person she has targeted.

Wherever the paranoid leader works, there will be a trail of bodies—of those targeted and attacked by her. Good employees will become sick as a result of the game-playing. Careers and reputations will be destroyed. Bad work will be rewarded and good work will be punished. And the institution she leads will suffer tremendously as a result.

What can be done to change such situations? Unfortunately, not a great deal—particularly not when the paranoid leader is well-ensconced in a church or in a church institution. As I have noted, churches and their institutions are loath to challenge or correct the paranoid leader, because doing so introduces systemic questions about why churches often belie their professed ideals in how they do business—questions churches do not wish to entertain.

In most church-sponsored institutions, nothing will be done to deal with an out-of-control paranoid leader, until she becomes so toxic that the future of the organization is placed at risk by the excesses of the leader. The body count may mount up, payouts in severance deals for demonized and expelled workers may proliferate, consultants may be brought in at lavish cost only to be discounted when their verdict does not reinforce the script of the paranoid leader’s inner drama.

As all this goes on, the church-sponsoring institution will stand by, not giving much thought to what is happening, until circumstances force the church and the governing board of the university to act. Thinking about such distasteful situations requires, after all, careful examination of the fundamental assumptions many churches make about leadership—and about gender and its privileges . . . .

*This posting continues my reflections on the shortcomings of the CEO model of top-down leadership in academic and church life—

**See also F. Abrahams, “A Systems Psychodynamic on Dealing with Change Amongst Different Leadership Styles” (Masters thesis, University of South Africa, 2005), p. 99—

***Here, a footnote to the posting to which this reflection links is worth repeating: On the foundational significance of institutions of higher learning in imparting the values necessary for democracy to thrive, see the significant 20th-century educator Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman University, who notes in her "Spiritual Autobiography," “In this atomic age, when one small materialistic possession has wrought fear among peoples of the world, I am convinced that leadership must strive hard to show the value of these spiritual tools which are as real as anything we touch or feel, and far more powerful."