I used to think that effective leaders and teachers in the church were trying their best, while dysfunctional leaders and teachers were just coasting by, not trying their best.

However, my experience has taught me that 99% of all leaders and teachers, whether effective or dysfunctional are trying their best with the skills and resources that they have.

So, in the case of dysfunctional leaders and teachers, what is really interesting is that “their best” is actually dysfunctional, yet they do not have the capacity or self-awareness to realize it.

This has led me to wonder: What is it about dysfunctional leaders and teachers that leads them to believe that their dysfunctional actions and decision making are appropriate courses of action?

From my research on leader mindsets, I have learned that what causes their “best” intentions to be so dysfunctional is rooted in their desires.

Specifically, they possess at least one of the four desires below that, while common and even natural, actually drive dysfunctional leaders and teachers to be dysfunctional.

Desire to Look Good

When leaders and teachers are focused on looking good, they:

  • Seek to teach in a way that will lead them to feel validated
  • Avoid challenges, hard discussions, and taking on problems because if they happen to not handle the challenges, discussions, and problems effectively, they believe that they would be viewed negatively
  • Call councilors or others that report into them that are likely to agree with their perspective (“yes men” and “yes women”) instead of people that will push or challenge them and their ideas
  • Tend to dominate the conversation or the class, as opposed to open up the group or class to discussion

It is easy for leaders and teachers to fall into this trap of wanting to look good because reputation plays an important role in one’s ability to lead, direct, and teach others. But, when leaders and teachers value looking good over actually becoming good, it drives them to operate in the dysfunctional way listed above.

Effective leaders and teachers are less concerned about looking good and more concerned about having a positive impact on those they serve. When leaders and teachers have a desire to have a positive impact on others that outweighs a desire to look good, they are more willing to:

  1. Teach in a way that is rewarding and valuable for those they teach and serve,
  2. Take on challenges, hard discussions, and problems in order to more fully bless the lives of others,
  3. Extend callings to people they consider to be smarter or more capable than them, and
  4. Be a facilitator of conversations and classes, as opposed to being a lecturer.

Desire to Be Right

When leaders and teachers are focused on being right, they:

  • Seek to have ideas supported
  • Are quick to provide answers
  • Avoid feedback and different perspectives
  • Believe that they know best (unwilling to admit that they are wrong)
  • Interpret disagreements as threats

Because of the nature of their callings, leaders and teachers are in a position of power. Often, when in this position, the leaders and teachers feel like they need to be seen as the authority, the expert, the one with all of the answers. Thus, they focus on being seen as the person with all the “right” answers. But, when leaders and teachers are focused on being right, they often stifle the voices of others and the deep dialogue that is necessary for optimal decision making and personal growth.

Effective leaders and teachers are less concerned about being right and more concerned about thinking as optimally as possible, seeking truth. In their efforts, rather than promoting what they think is “best” or “right,” they are driven to:

  1. Seek out new information and different perspectives,
  2. Ask questions (as opposed to give answers),
  3. Seek to understand,
  4. Believe that they can be wrong, and
  5. See disagreements as opportunities to learn and think more effectively.

Desire to Avoid Problems

When leaders and teachers are focused on avoiding problems, they:

  • Avoid tackling hard, yet meaningful, questions and challenges
  • Become focused on urgent things instead of important things
  • Seek to make their life easier instead of other peoples’ experiences more rewarding
  • Are unwilling to take risks and be vulnerable when seeking to help the ward, the auxiliary, or members progress

Sometimes leaders and teachers feel that as long as things don’t go wrong under their watch, they are being effective. Yet, when leaders and teachers are focused on avoiding problems, they head down the path of least resistance. And, we know where that path leads: downhill.

Yet, leadership and teaching is not about avoiding problems, it is about working through problems to get to a better place, spiritually, emotionally, or even physically.

Effective leaders and teachers focus on what is important, which is blessing the lives of others and helping them learn and do those things that will bring them closer to God. They recognize that doing these things is going to require that they anticipate (rather than avoid) problems and take risks. With this attitude, effective leaders and teachers are willing to take on what is truly important and head in a direction more meaningful: uphill.

Desire to Do What Is Best for Themselves

When leaders and teachers are focused on doing what is best for themselves, they:

  • Seek to be in “in control”
  • Seek the spotlight and limit others time in the spotlight
  • Prefer to “get through” their lesson rather than stay on a topic of interest to the class
  • Are more concerned with what they have to say than with what others have to say
  • Fail to seek council when making decisions

For many people, not just leaders and teachers, our natural inclination is to look out for #1. When leaders and teachers carry this into their service, they have a tendency to prioritize their needs over the needs of those they serve. When this happens, leaders and teachers often subconsciously engage in the above behaviors. Ultimately, when people follow these leaders and teachers, they do so because they feel compelled to.

Effective leaders and teachers, on the other hand, see their position as a responsibility to look after the needs of those they serve. As such, they see others as valuable partners and they seek to serve them in ways that they can excel, even if it means making their own life more challenging. When leaders and teachers take this perspective toward their service, they often try to ensure that the spotlight shines on others and they often reflect any light that gets shown on them. Ultimately, when people follow these leaders and teachers, they do so because they want to.

What Are Your Desires?

The four desires discussed here are natural and common desires. Yet, they are at the foundation of dysfunctional leadership and teaching. It is my guess that you can see many, if not all, of these in the dysfunctional leaders and teachers that you have served with or learned from. Yet, what is sad is that while these leaders and teachers were all of the mindset that they were doing their best, they were unable to recognize that their largely subconscious desires were causing them to be dysfunctional in their decision making and actions.

If you want to be a truly effective leader or teacher, you need to intentionally break through these seemingly natural desires and instead:

  • Desire to have a positive impact on those you serve
  • Desire truth and thinking optimally
  • Desire to do what is right, not what is easy
  • Desire to do what is best for others

If you want to learn what your subconscious desires are, take this free personal mindset assessment.

Ryan is an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at California State University-Fullerton. His topical expertise is in success mindsets, leadership development, performance management, and organizational topics that include employee engagement, psychological safety, trust, and fairness. He holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from Indiana University and a BA from Brigham Young University. Additionally, he is a former Gallup workplace analytics consultant, where he designed research efforts and engaged in data analytics to generate business solutions for dozens of organizations across various industries. He has published over 15 articles in various journals including Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Management, Business Horizons, and Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. You can check out his leadership and personal success blog at https://www.ryangottfredson.com/

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