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On any given day we may read about a leader, in corporations, government, business, or religious institutions, who has lost a job, prestige, reputation, or respect due to self-defeating behavior.
A common first response upon reading these instances is, “What were they thinking?!”
Self-defeating behaviors are “those in which the course of action and its results are contrary to one’s ultimate purpose or aim.
These behaviors may be conscious or unconscious and harmful to self or others.
They undermine the self’s sense of well-being, wholeness, and spirituality, as well as one’s ability to flourish personally or professionally.”(1)
Here are some common self-defeating behaviors:
As we can see, there are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to self-defeating behaviors.
One may question how worthwhile it may be to explore the root cause for this: character traits, personality disorders, the leader’s capacity for handling stress, lack of emotional intelligence and maturity, etc.
A more intriguing question is about the contexts in which these leaders function.
In other words, “What is it about the system that puts up with and allows for these kinds of behaviors from their leader?”
Rarely is it the case that it’s a one-time isolated instance that does a leader in.
Typically, leaders who manifest self-defeating behaviors manifest them over a long period of time.
It’s a pattern of behaviors that become more blatant as the system fails to provide correctives or hold their leaders accountable.
So the second question is, “Why do they put up with that kind of behavior from their leader?”
The answer to that question can help an organization avoid the pain of finding themselves with a series of poorly functioning leaders.
I dare guess that it only takes a series of three poor leaders in a row to do an organization in.
It’s less about the personality of the leader, and more about the system that allows themselves to be led by leaders who don’t provide what the system needs to thrive.
Some years ago a study of effective church leaders found that it was not so much that good pastors had good churches as much as it was that healthy churches were able to call healthy pastors.
As we say, “health attracts health; dysfunction attracts dysfunction.”
(1) (Zabel, V. S. Self Defeating Behavior in Clergy, the Systemic Dynamics that Maintain Them, and the Implications for Seminary Education, Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Minnesota.). See also, V. Due Zabel, “Organizational Dynamics and the Clergy” in The Emotional Side of Organizations: Applications of Bowen Theory, ed. P. A. Comella, et al. Washington, DC: Georgetown Family Center, 1996.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).