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Toward Wholeness Blog

Avalanches and Authoritians… how to avoid following toxic leaders

If you click on this link, you can read an essay about the avalanche at Stevens Pass that killed three and injured one in 2012. It’s become a case study in the risks inherent in group dynamics and decision making. My summary is simple: beware the danger of group think, even if the group is credible and experienced. In the end, each of us needs to have the courage to be contrarian. And if the group or its leaders lack credibility? If they have a proven history of deception, gaslighting, temper tantrums, over-promising, and refusal to listen to any trusted outside voices that contradict their own opinions and desires? When that happens, run fast and hard, because a fall is coming, and when it does, the damage left in its wake will be enormous and painful to bear.

In spite of these seemingly obvious statements, the danger of group think remains high for our species, regardless of our faith or political affiliations or education levels. If we think we’re above being sucked into the vortex of a bad leader or decision, our arrogance only confirms our vulnerability. The reason this matters so much right now is because church, state, and the business world are all filled with example of foolish, hypocritical, greedy, power-hungry, and hence, disastrous leaders. I spoke of why in this video on the danger of leading from a place of emptiness.

This piece, though, is about we who follow leaders and decisions. Understanding the reasons behind our susceptibility to bad decisions and bad leaders is the first step in dismantling the risk. The basic reasons are common throughout history. People follow to their detriment when:

They are too easily swayed by a single gift of the leader, usually a gift of oratory or vision that‘s used to persuade. He/she (though almost always “he” throughout history) speaks so well, so engagingly, that the listeners are swept up. The content/vision ”must be right” because the leader says it so well. As they're speaking, our dopamine levels rise (a pleasure hormone) and that’s addictive! We think we’re choosing wisely but we’re actually just choosing to feel good. Many pastors, politicians, and CEO’s all get to places of prominence because of these gifts. Their charisma attracts a crowd, and the crowd becomes “all the affirmation you need” to jump in and follow.

Of course nobody says, ”I’m voting for X because they raise my dopamine levels.” And, of course, it’s never that simple. But if we fail to acknowledge it as a factor, then individuals like Lenin, El Duce, and Hitler all rise to power. Full beer halls become full auditoriums, become full stadiums, become enough of a vote to usher in power, eventually declare an emergency and seize more power, and farther down the road, commit suicide while their country sits in the ashes of humiliation and defeat. In conversations with students I’ve taught over the years in Germany, I’ve learned that they’re taught in school to approach authority with skepticism rather than blindly jumping on the bandwagon. Do your homework. Ask the question. Recognize that good oration is not the same thing as truth.

People follow to their detriment when they feel a leader understands them. The environment in which this vulnerability ripens is neglect. When existing leaders take loyalty for granted and fail to actually hear and serve the people under their care, they open the door for “your other church didn’t care for you… I will,” “your other party doesn’t see your needs, I do…” It may well be true that your other church, or party, or workplace was incompetent or callous or cruel. If I’m hot, though, and the devil offers me an ice cube, I’d do well to ask the price, and consider how the one from hell will be able to deliver the cooling goods. Of course there are lessons in here for leaders, about service, and listening, but followers beware! Never let your dis-satisfaction of “this” leave you ripe and eager to accept “that” without doing your diligence.

Finally, people follow to their detriment because of peer pressure and group think. In that avalanche story, you’ll read of women, professional skiers, who had serious reservations about the conditions and proposed line, but didn’t want to be nay-sayers because they were wanting to move their gender forward. Male voices wanted the prominence of an article in a global magazine in order to elevate the ski area’s profile. Group think has its reasons, but the bottom line is that we look at people around us and realize that we’ll risk losing our sense of belonging, if not our tribe altogether, if we dissent.

This was a huge factor in the Rwandan genocide, but it occurs in a million tiny ways around the world every day. Try critiquing leftest policies in Seattle if you’re a public figure. Try suggesting to your rural republican school board that we should teach the history of redlining, Jim Crow laws, and the cultural genocide of Native Americans to our children. How’s that working out? Let’s face the fact that cultural pressures help shape views of people, and then let's commit to being mature enough to rise above that, so that our decisions and ethics aren’t informed by cultural pressures, or denominational dictums, or party group-think, but by what the scripture calls “wisdom from above,” a wisdom that is pure, peaceable, and contributes to the world being more just.

That kind of discernment is hard to find these days. I’d suggest that the reason is that we too often are living out from a place of aching need rather than the kind of fullness and contentment that empowers wise discernment and courageous dissent if necessary. The path to fullness is, itself, not a path that’s stumbled onto accidentally. It requires an intentional shift in our lives. That’s why I offer the video below, the second in a series on fullness. Pour yourself a beverage and enjoy it!!

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