Handbook for Battered Leaders, Janis Bragan Balda and Wesley D. Balda. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.
Summary: Using 2 Corinthians as a case study of battered leadership, the authors explore the factors that contribute to organizational conflict, and how battered leaders may respond to toxic organizational cultures.
The authors know that leadership can be hard. This is evident in their title for the first chapter, “If You Haven’t Bled, You Haven’t Led.” A corollary to this is would be their contention that if you’ve been a leader for any length of time, then you’ve been battered–beaten up by the organization in which you are trying to lead.
The authors approach this through the use of the Corinthian church as a case study of a toxic organization that “battered” Paul as he tried to address their dysfunctions and 2 Corinthians is a letter that shows how Paul responded to this situation. In part one, they consider the different factors that lead to toxic organizations. These include toxic leaders, whether through bullying, sins of omission, or fostering pretensions of their greatness, and hypocrisy. Likewise there are toxic followers, whether they are co-conspirators, those who foster a culture of blame, or even engaged in mobbing, where a group targets an individual or individuals to humiliate them. The third factor is “systems fatigue”, the dysfunctional factors that are inherent in organizational systems.
Part two then considers particular dysfunctions of Christian organizations including resistance to change, “niceness” and passive-aggressiveness. And they focus on a particular distinctive of Christian organizations: how they manage (or don’t manage) sin.
Part three then moves toward solutions. First the idea of “the meaningful outside” is introduced–for example, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the needy church and the generosity of the Macedonians. Second is learning to practice relationship responsibility. And thirdly they talk about hope, generosity, and power. Here they discuss things like managing up, knowing when and how to exit, and making one’s voice heard. They conclude with the acknowledgement that time doesn’t heal all wounds, that some become sacred and part of the challenge is allowing God to both heal and shape one’s leadership.
I most appreciated the stark realism of this book and its willingness to name the deep dysfunctions that often are part of even “Christian” organizations. I’ve certainly seen this and probably contributed to these dysfunctions! The toolboxes at the end of each chapter were quite helpful in recognizing practical strategies one could use.
If I had one quibble, it was that at times the attempt to look at organizational function through the lens of 2 Corinthians seemed a bit forced and sometimes seemed just a springboard to what they wanted to cover. It is obvious that they had a great deal of expertise in working with dysfunctional organizations and were trying to write a Christian book. At times this approach seemed to work, and at other times it seemed disjointed. It was, however, an interesting slant on 2 Corinthians!
This could be a valuable book both for recovering battered leaders to know what hit them, and for leadership teams to use, to assess how they, and their organizations are functioning. There are far too many gifted leaders who have been beaten up and are out of action. Hopefully this will bring healing insight, and perhaps come to the aid of the others in the midst of battering situations. None of our organizations can afford to lose leaders or good followers to toxic leaders, followers, or systems.