The Youth Director at my church saw me walking around this week carrying Dennis Tourish’s book The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective, and he asked me what it was about. This was before I had started reading it, so I took a guess. “It’s mostly about egotistical CEO’s and why they’re not as cool as they think.”
I wasn’t far off. Tourish explains that “The core argument of this book is that leaders wield enormous power, not always wisely.” This is a business book that largely focuses on the charismatic leadership by CEO’s and other “top brass”. As with many books in this genre, the lessons and questions here can be applied much more broadly and will relate to leaders in many different arenas.
For example, many pastoral leaders have heard the Bible passage from Proverbs 29:18 used in relation to church leadership. It says, “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Like many biblical “slogans”, this one is taken out of context but is often seen to mean that the leader, the one with vision, must step into a heroic, transformational role if the church is going to really grow and thrive.
This is such a heavy burden to bear. It is as if everyone is walking around like Jerry Maguire in the eponymous movie, with half a heart or half a life, looking for the leader of whom it can be said, “you complete me”. But this is how leaders are often expected to act.
Of course, leadership is a key component in the healthy life of a business, church or other organization. The saying “nature abhors a vacuum” indicates that a void, or a gap, or a space will necessarily be filled by something, and that is where transformational leaders come in. Tourish writes, “to those lost and looking for answers, idealism in almost any form can be alluring.” He argues that there are even parallels between transformational leaders and leaders of cults. Both are trying to “fill a void” that they seek in an organization or in the lives of their followers.
So, what does it take to have healthy transformational leadership?
This week our lead mentor Jason Clark shared an article on Facebook that was about the importance of self-awareness for people (especially leaders). This is a key for leaders of all sorts. The article says, “developing clarity within yourself improves self-assessment, decision-making, and overall happiness. Rather than reacting in the heat of the moment, you can act with understanding, calm, and wisdom. Self-awareness is your ability to be mindful of what you are doing and understand why you are doing it.”
This assessment concurs with much of the reading and discussion that our Cohort has had over the years. The development of the person, their own interior life, a life with God, a mature sense of self, all of this can mitigate against the “dark side” that Tourish is describing. As McIntosh and Rima, Sr, write, “When our drive to achieve, fueled by unmet needs (e.g., the need for approval) and existential debt, is channeled in the right direction, it can be a power for good. However, when that need-fueled drive becomes misdirected, it can result in disaster as we have seen.”
What is this “disaster” that is being described? One instance that is cited is the “Great Recession”, which was partially fueled by leaders in large businesses, banks and organizations not heeding warning signs and pushing straight ahead. One of Tourish’s main criticisms is that “transformational leadership theories may well become unfalsifiable. Whatever happens, or whatever could possibly happen, is evidence of the theory’s correctness… success is due to the correct application of the transformational leadership model. Failures are due to external factors beyond its control. In either case, the solution is more transformational leadership.”
This is a tautological argument, where organizations need transformational leadership in order to thrive, but also that when this kind of leadership has caused a major problem, the solution is also “more transformational leadership”.
It seems to me that there is a balance to be struck in any organizational setting. As a pastor in a local congregation, many people see me as the “visionary leader” or the one who sets the agenda and directs the ship. However, if this instinct that people have is not checked and appropriately managed, it can lead to the kind of “hubris and narcissism”that Tourish is describing. Self-knowledge is one attribute that a leader needs in order to avoid this fate. But it also takes having open, trusting relationships with others around you, which allows for honest feedback and critique. It is a humbling thing to try and lead people who have high expectations and hopes for what you will do, and the reality is that no leader can do it all.
In the end, I still struggle to find the right balance within myself between the lofty leader up in the front, and the reality of the limitations that I actually have. Maybe it’s enough to be reminded that I don’t need other people’s applause or approval to make me whole, and it isn’t my job to make others whole in their lives. And that’s okay!
Gustavo Razzetti, “How to Increase Self-Awareness and Be at Peace with Yourself,” Liberationist Blog, Medium, February 4, 2019, https://blog.liberationist.org/how-to-increase-self-awareness-and-be-at-peace-with-yourself-74df445bc26c?fbclid=IwAR3zQElEk3EgQHgJ48ElM7erEyqq8uy7PCX6vq_yyTqijHSEpHFOMxUpWIY.