Bryan Hughes has studied toxic leadership traits, their conducive conditions, and how organizations can foster recovery after the removal of the toxic leader. As a researcher, consultant, and speaker, he has sought to provide clarity on this often-complicated scenario, and consults and advocates for people-centric cultures. Bryan has over twenty years of executive professional experience in private and public companies, and is currently completing his doctoral dissertation around the subject of toxic leadership. An adult convert to the Church, Bryan has served in a number of callings including bishopric counselor, stake mission president, stake executive secretary, temple ordinance worker, and over a decade as a ward mission leader. Bryan can be reached for more information at LinkedIn.
Toxic leadership can be equally as prevalent in our meetinghouses as it might be in our professional offices. While we may assume their presence for toxic leader tendencies wouldn’t carry over into our wards and stakes, this is unfortunately far from the truth. In fact, our lay-ministry is potentially more at risk than other ecclesiastical or non-profit environments; and as such, the parallels with the corporate or professional world are more closely aligned. This is due to two issues: first is that individuals called to serve in leadership positions do not inherently come with professional training in managing their own ego, nor the self-awareness when they may be exhibiting toxic tendencies; and second, because of our geographic bounds and underlying sense of duty, we do not typically walk away from toxic leaders, which would serve as a spotlight on these shortcomings and direct change in a traditional organization. With these challenges in mind, we can review our risks and opportunities in a gospel-setting, and identify opportunities to improve our respective Church culture.
Individually, I subscribe to John Maxwell’s definition of leadership in that leadership is our ability to influence people. To that end, each of us are or can be leaders in our wards and stakes. Some may read about toxic leader traits and think of this one bishop or stake president that they know, but in reality we should first look in our own mirror, and then seek to improve the external. With influence as the key attribute, we can and should consider the wisdom found in D&C 121:41. It appears though for many, this is only taken in the context of ministration (Priesthood authority, callings, etc.), and not administration (planning, communicating, organizing). Reviewing this further, we can review more academic definitions of leadership typologies, or styles, for clarity. By definition, a toxic leader is pro-self and actively works for their own benefit and not the benefit of the organization. This may manifest or show in many ways; the more negative of which could include manipulation, triangulation, deflection, and responsibility avoidance.
Toxic leadership should not be confused with abusive or destructive leadership. I highlight this because toxic leadership in our wards and stakes may not appear as negative on the surface. In fact, you could have a highly charismatic leader that has a strong following amongst members. The toxic leader may not intentionally be pro-self, which can make this review complicated. There are certainly narcissistic leaders who hoard authority for their own belief in their own skills, but equally toxic is the leader who does not delegate for fear of failure on behalf of that individual or organization. Rather, we should seek to promote ethical leadership.
Ethical leadership is presented and received as fair, consistent, and honest. An ethical leader’s decisions are not always positive, but they are typically supported and respected as the follower believes the leaders’ intentions to be genuine. In a gospel setting, this can be more difficult to judge. Culturally, we act as if every calling extended and every decision made is as if they were written on a Liahona stashed in the bishop’s office. In reality, logic, reason, and past experience also play into decisions. Remember that this can apply to anyone with influence, including those without designated callings to lead. When the ward council meets together and plans an activity, is there a tendency to stick with tradition, or accommodate the desires of a prominent family in the ward, or even a ward council member? Does the bishop not ensure that all at the ward council table have a voice? Are traditions more important than the needs of the individual? Is there an allowance for the individual who is making effort rather than holding everyone in judgment to some legalistic and self-interpreted standard? These are all toxic tendencies that collectively can work against true growth and unity in the ward. Further, our General Church leadership have been begging for us for years to remove not only the unnecessary and inappropriate judgment, but to implement practices that build councils of collaboration rather than the silos of tradition that exist in in many units today.
3 Practices to Overcome Toxic Leadership
Even with the best efforts to avoid it, toxic leaders or toxic leadership tendencies will exist systemically or at least periodically. As truly self-seeking and knowingly-toxic individuals are usually rooted out, I’ll focus on our unintentionally-toxic tendencies.
1 – Behavior Modeling
A primary method to avoid, and disconnect from any such culture, is to model the behavior more aligned with ethical leadership. As more individuals model the caring but honest, consistent, and authentic influence spoken of in D&C 121, expectations can shift in this direction causing more toxic tendencies to stick out and correct themselves, or as such be corrected. In too many cases, especially where the leader is not intentionally acting in a toxic fashion, the ward or stake population become accustomed and perhaps even excuse this. We don’t stand up and say to a Priesthood or Organization leader that we won’t follow them because of their actions, so instead we tolerate the behaviors. Rather, if we collectively force the issues of collaboration, press for details if we think someone at the table is holding back due to fear or anxiety when they have an opposing opinion, then this becomes what is expected and normal in the organization. When reviewing professional settings, it is possible to have an organization with such a high level of cultural integrity that toxic leaders remove themselves due to discomfort. This is also possible in a Church setting, but in our case we respect the role of the individual called and we instead seek to influence their growth in the role through their improvement and disassociation with the toxic tendencies or behaviors. More practically, if you are in an organization committee meeting and individuals are being excluded (even unintentionally) by a first-to-speak or charismatic leader, then you need to interject and suggest that we hear what so-and-so’s thoughts are. We may even need to reassure them that their voice matters and that we need to hear it! If you are in a ward or stake Council meeting and you observe that someone is being overly deferential to another, then invite them to participate as well. As a leader yourself, are you looking to actively build up others? Even without a calling, if you are the most influential person in the room, then it is incumbent on you to add your light to others. Specifically, are you the first one to greet or even sit with the newly single mother, or the widower, or the person just coming back to Church who reeks of cigarette smoke? Not for your glory, but to bless the individual and in this case, to also set the public example that there are no classes or cliques in God’s kingdom. Use the influence you have to help make introductions, to help others build lasting relationships, and to help them add oil to their lamp. If you are a leader by position, in any calling, then culturally you have a spotlight on you. Yes, you are human too, but you are granted influence by the nature of your positions and it is incumbent upon you to act as Christ-like as possible by lifting others around you, being consistent and authentic, and to ensure everyone has a voice.
2 – Remove Pedestals
Potentially the most difficult for us, is the need (culturally) for us to not put individuals on pedestals based on current or past callings. This does not mean we do not respect the role, or degrade the responsibility that they currently have upon their shoulders, but in the Kingdom of God, none of our brothers or sisters are innately worth more to Him than another. Culturally, we are like the brother that stuck around from the parable of the prodigal son. However rather than judging the other brother for being loved, we just believe that there is a hierarchy based on Church experience or perceived faithfulness. Our individual effort and our attempts to magnify callings do matter to the Lord because He knows us, but we should not create artificial social classes based on this information. Doing so only leads to the conducive environment that fosters toxic leadership, and is contrary to the Zion we should strive for.
In practical application, this is hard. We are stuck in traditions that surround callings and tenured families in ward. We should not devalue their contributions, but we should also avoid memorializing them. We do this in many ways that are (often unintentionally) excluding new or returning members of the Church, or even simply new move-ins. Many individuals and families have faced less-than-welcoming scenarios where they didn’t honor the right person or family, or talked to the wrong person or family. We have received significant counsel to cease this behavior as the effects extend beyond the individual judgment, but they also foster a toxic environment that corrupts our ward families, adds to divisiveness and contention, and may directly impact those individuals seeking for a Gospel home.
3 – Don’t Play Small
A witness, but perhaps taken-for-granted counsel given by local and general church leaders, is that of our individual divine worth. It is built into the Young Women and Young Men’s themes; it has been shared in conference sessions generally as well as for women and men individually. It is written by proclamation by Prophets, Seers, and Revelators. However, why do we feel that our opinion, voice, effort, or role, is less valuable than another? What evidence or doctrine tells us to ignore the guidance that “…all may be edified of all, and that every man (and woman) have an equal privilege”? this should not be interpreted as advocacy for role or organizational adjustments in the Church, but rather that culturally, we confuse being meek and being weak. Meekness refers to our relationship with God, in humility and seeking His will over our own. Applied in our meetinghouses, this means that collectively we seek to identify and submit to God’s will. President Packer regularly reminded us that revelation comes to councils. Citing experiences with the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, President Packer shared how each would share their thoughts before collectively pondering on all of the information. President Nelson shared that prior to choosing counselors for the First Presidency that he interviewed the apostles first, then went to the Lord. He said “good inspiration comes from good information”. If this is the counsel we receive, why then do we de-value our role as leaders in the Gospel?
In practical application, we are often deferential to the traditions of the ward or stake, and we regularly give excess honor to the individuals who occupy certain callings. If a bishop, or Relief Society president, or a Primary first counselor, is rolling over everyone else in a committee or council meeting, then step in! We recognize that an individual was called of God to lead in a particular role, but do not apply that same logic to our own called-of-God role. The Priesthood power provided to every calling provides that we can collectively support the work of the kingdom. Even as a non-called leader/influencer, we can support those in positions of authority by not only sustaining as is appropriate, but seeking to educate and advise, with humility, those we support. Specifically, it may not be our individual decision to make, nor do we need to question authority or seek to receive revelation on their behalf, but we can guide. As a simple example, as a ministering brother or sister, you might advise based on your experience and understanding, how a relief society or elders’ quorum could help an individual or family. Just because it’s a new assignment or you haven’t been in the ward long, this doesn’t mean your voice isn’t needed.
Toxic leaders, leadership, and cultures, can and do exist in the true Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Our faith is made up of people, and people bring with them flaws to overcome. Even unintentionally, we can support and sustain, or even exacerbate conditions that allow toxic leadership to flourish. While mentioned previously, it is again worth noting that this does not apply to only positions such as bishops and stake presidents. Only through an on-purpose effort can we elevate our leadership towards great alignment with what the Lord would have us be in His church.