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The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership

Written by: on February 8, 2019

Having returned from Kenya late last night, I confess that I was unable to read or even read much around this book. This means that it might be more sacrificial than helpful for you to read this post. Still, I have been paying close attention to the ways in which the Christian leaders I know in Kenya lead transformation in their communities, and those who do not. The Christian religion is saturated in Kenya, and especially around Nairobi. It seemed that more than half the retail shops and service companies use Christian language to promote their businesses, whether or not there is any evidence of Christian values or commitment being practiced in their businesses. There are also many megachurch leaders who grow churches in Kenya through charisma and even prosperity promises (kind of like we saw in Cape Town), but do not do much in the way of community development (a huge need in Kenya and the other half of the gospel). In the opposite manner, there are humanitarian organizations (NGO’s) who do not have religious commitments to provide an understandable (or eschatalogical) reason for doing restorative work. It seems to me that transformation is lacking in both of these scenarios. Where I saw transformation was in the communities where “word and deed” were integrated with the mission of the organization, and in the practice of the leader’s life.

Stephen and Rosemary Mbogo are two transformational leaders. Stephen is CEO of African Evangelistic Enterprise (AEE) and Rosemary is a Dean of Students and department chair at African International University (AIU). What they do in their jobs is transformational enough, but what they do as their “side hustle” is even more compelling. Rosemary grew up in the slum, Mathare North, as the oldest of 10 kids. Her parents died when she was twelve. She raised her siblings, dropped out of high school in order to pay for her siblings to get through school, then she went back and finished. She married Stephen (at the time a leader for AEE, and he led her to Christ, which compelled her to continue studying until she finally completed her PhD at Biola in 2012. When I first visited them in Nairobi in 2005, after doing an evangelistic mission with Stephen and AE in Antananarivo, Madagascar, I learned that they had adopted two kids from Mathare and that Rosemary was beginning to build a “children’s home” (aka orphanage) on the side.

Stephen and Rosemary had provided two kids with a place to stay, but they ran away. When Rosemary and Stephen found them, they asked why they ran away, and the boys said it was because they didn’t need a place to stay as much as they needed a mother and father’s love. So, Stephen and Rosemary heard that and followed by taking them into their home. And then they adopted another, and another, until they had over 35 kids and had to legally declare an orphanage. Rosemary had just begun transforming their house into an orphanage and school while moving to the university to live with Stephen, their two biological kids, and whoever else could legally fit in their house. My family’s foundation has been supporting the building of (what they have called) “ByGrace” since 2005, and now because of their leadership (mostly Rosemary’s), they have a primary school and high school that boards kids who have been orphaned, even as it serves kids who still live with their parents in the slums. There are over 400 kids now at “ByGrace Children’s Home and School” in Ngong. Their teaching not only involves meeting academic requirements, but they also provide trauma recovery, education for parents, and deep and vast Christian instruction for the kids all the way through high school. Even though Stephen and Rosemary live at the university in the next town over (Karen), they are understood to be the parents of all the kids. I preached at the church at ByGrace on Sunday (the kids lead the service every week with a chaplain’s guidance) on my 40th birthday, and all the kids were so happy to see “Mom and Dad” in worship since they are often preaching elsewhere on Sunday mornings.

This past week I got to spend time with the first two kids in the orphanage who had run away. Chris grew up in Mathare and his parents died when he was a toddler, and Alex grew up in a Masai village (almost got stomped on by an elephant when he was 8). They ended up with the Mbogos when they were 10 years old. They are now part of the first generation of graduates from ByGrace and are finishing their bachelors’ degrees at AIU, working their own businesses, and pursuing masters’ level education. At the Mbogo’s home on the university campus, Stephen and Rosemary provide housing and family life for their ByGrace graduates who are now studying at the university. Their home is 1,200 square feet with three bedrooms and a large closet room. There are 18 college kids (ByGrace graduates) who live there, along with Stephen and Rosemary who serve as their parents in addition to their full-time jobs.

Drs. Stephen and Rosemary are transformational leaders with intense moral clarity. Rosemary does high-level organizational work to continue building, expanding, and improving ByGrace, and Stephen serves as an engaged father to these kids who do not know what it means to have a father, and especially one like Stephen.

There is a lot of confusion around masculinity in our American culture today. We speak of “toxic masculinity” because we do not know what healthy masculinity looks like. Stephen is a role model for me in terms of healthy Christian masculinity and fatherhood. He is strong. He leads. He is engaged and not passive. Yet he knows that he cannot control outcomes, so he is able to differentiate himself from the kids’ decisions in adulthood. He suffers when the kids choose wrongly, but he does not control their decisions. He guides them and provides the tools they need. He teaches them directly about sexuality, education, work, and how faith integrates into all of life. The result of this hard work is that these kids who come to ByGrace when they are little, are given attentive guidance all the way into adulthood. It is their life trajectories that are transformed. Dr. Stephen seems to embody the four archetypes of healthy masculinity according to Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette (in the ilk of Carl Jung): the magician, the warrior, the king, and the lover. He can hold together gentleness and strength, courage and compassion, patience and boldness. Most men in North America are drawn to one or the other and as a result, we are confused an unable to lead the kind of transformation we desire. This is also largely why it’s time to look to women like Brene Brown to teach us about the relationship between vulnerability and courage.

Transformational leadership requires engagement over the long haul. As Greg mentioned in his post, it is easy to confuse charismatic leadership with transformational leadership. The reality is that “darkness” is always present, and attentive leaders who have endured the challenges of leading in a developing context like Nairobi are keenly aware of this reality. Like it says in Exodus 17, the Israelites will have to fight Amalek “from generation to generation.” The transformational leader must always be aware of the presence of darkness and its influence, which often manifests as an enlarged ego reveling in success-as-fame over transformation. If leaders want to lead genuine and healthy transformation, we must be aware of the darkness that lives in us and wants to replace transformation with fame. Transformational leadership requires, perhaps more than anything else, the continual formation of virtue in the leader.

About the Author

Chris Pritchett

9 responses to “The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership”

  1. Thanks so much for this post about ByGrace and the faithful couple running it. Your conclusion is similar to what Trisha has highlighted in her post–the need for individual transformation as leaders. If we were more concerned about being transformed into the likeness of Christ, and less concered about trying to transform others, perhaps we would lead in the healthy, differentiated way of Stephen Mbogo.

  2. Kenya must have been beautiful, Chris! It must have been interesting to see Tourish’s book come to life as you walked the streets of Nairobi.

    It’s interesting to see how Tourish’s book and Meyer’s text meet to form a narrative for ministry. I’ve seen many Kenyan pastors lean towards a doctrine of prosperity and promised wealth within their teachings. I wonder if the lens by which they see the gospel is colored by their preference towards communal relationships. If one pastor is wealthy, they see the benefit of their whole congregation sharing in that wealth. I wonder if they would deem it selfish to have so much and not share it with others.

    You mention something very interesting. You talk about education and the desire for higher learning amongst your friends in Kenya. Do you find that pastors who encourage higher learning operate from a better place of leadership? I have found many pastors and leaders who perpetuate transformational leadership to be anti-education because they see it as a threat to their authoritarian pull on their congregants?

  3. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Chris,

    Kenya is an amazing country. I was there in May leading a trip for King students and alumni for 3 weeks. We also spent a good deal of time in Mathare Valley as well as some Maasai villages. I was also struck with the seemingly ubiquitous Christian emphasis in many parts of the country. At the same time there remains huge disparity much like in our own country. The text this week discussed the dangers of leadership. Kenya and other African countries are not immune to this and there are many, in churches and the corporate world who use their positions inappropriately. The challenge for us according to Tourish is to recognize the limits of leadership and surround ourselves with those who are willing and able to call us to account when necessary.

    Welcome home.

  4. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Chris,
    Thank you for sharing a meaningful story for inspiring leadership. What an amazing experience for you and your daughter. And what an amazing example of servant leadership in Kenya! It sure makes our first world problems seem trivial – including our constructs of good leadership vs. the dark side of leadership!

  5. Dave Watermulder says:

    Chris,
    Welcome back! Thank you for sharing reflections this week from your travels and relating them very well to the topic from this reading :). Your interest and passion in this area is so clear, and I’m glad that you are working in a new venture which will put you more in contact with other influential leaders, especially as you seek to use resources that you have for greater good. It’s inspiring to hear about, and so thanks for writing.

  6. Shawn Hart says:

    Chris, I decided to throw myself on the sacrificial blade and read your post anyway…LOL…and man am I glad I did. Excellent post revealing that the scripture is still true; “Faith without works is dead.” Transformational leadership requires a leader of example as your experiences have proven. I have worked under a number of people in my life, but the most influential were those who actually worked beside me, rather than worked over me. What an amazing experience you had the opportunity to share in. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  7. Great post Chris! I loved this part at the end of you post…”If leaders want to lead genuine and healthy transformation, we must be aware of the darkness that lives in us and wants to replace transformation with fame.” That fame and power is what seems to breed Narcissism and when this goes unchecked leaders can become very dark and dangerous for those they are leading.

  8. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Thanks Chris for this post. Its great hearing about your personal reflections and incredible trip

  9. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Chris,

    Thank you for sharing from your trip! What a powerful example of transformational leadership in Rosemary and Stephen, especially as a couple and as parents. Praise God for their good work and for the amazing and truly transformational stories of these kids’ lives. That is the road less traveled, the one you speak of at the end of your post, which nails the essence of Tourish’s book.

    Also, I am seeing more and more about toxic masculinity and am glad to see not just my female friends excited by Brene Brown’s good work.

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