Leadership, Crisis, and Sabotage

By Justin Dean    |    October 16, 2023


For the past four months, I’ve been writing about leadership lessons I learned while preaching my way through the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. One of the dominant themes in both of these books is that if you want to be a leader, you better be prepared for a lot of conflict. I know when I was a young, growing leader, I assumed that the better leader that I became, the less people would have a problem with me. In other words, I assumed that people naturally want to follow a “good” leader.

Here’s the reality. You are leading people because they can’t get to where they need to go without some help. They are stuck where they are, and, for many reasons, they cannot move forward. They might say, “I’m really hoping for a promotion,” or “I want to be a National Champion,” or “I want to know my Bible better,” or “I want to be a disciple-maker,” or “I want to be a Christ-centered husband.” It could be any goal. But the reality is most people don’t know how to reach those goals, or they cannot make the necessary changes to make it happen.

A Real Leader

Your job as a leader is to help them take responsibility and do the next right thing, over and over and over—to grow into the person that God has called them to be, to accomplish the works God has prepared in advance for them to accomplish (Eph. 2:10).

Here’s one of my favorite quotes about what a real leader is and does from David Foster Wallace,

Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. Think about it. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority. If you’ve ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own. In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”1

Now, Wallace uses some great images and language to describe what a real leader is and does. But he kind of paints it in a romantic light. I don’t really think we “like how a leader makes us feel.” I actually hated how my best coaches made me feel. But I liked the man I was becoming. I liked getting stronger. I liked winning. He’s right when He says that “real leaders get us to work harder, push ourselves to think differently, and to overcome the limitations of our own laziness, and selfishness, and weakness, and fear and to get us to do better things that we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

The Normal Response to Leadership

What I want to address in this article is how normal people usually respond to this type of leadership. The normal response isn’t cheerful obedience or gratitude; the normal response is often more crisis and (sometimes) attempts to sabotage the leader.

I coached wrestling for about a decade before planting Sacred City Church. When you ask a wrestler, “Do you want to be a state qualifier or a state champion?” they almost always will say, “Yes.” But then, as a coach, you lay out for them what they must do to make that goal a reality.

You are going to have to wrestle a lot in the off-season. You will have to lift weights at least three times every week. You will have to go to some camps and off-season tournaments. That means you might not be able to do some fun things with your friends. It’s going to take a lot of sacrifice and commitment for you to reach that goal. Now, in one sense, this good leadership by a coach who cares is bringing more anxiety and pain into this wrestler’s life. It’s going to take a whole lot more short-term pain if he is going to achieve his long-term goal. He’s going to have to become a different type of person in the process to be able to do all of this without me babysitting him and trying to be his motivation. The truth is, most wrestlers won’t be able to do it.

And then (and this happens 100% of the time) during the season, there will come a point in practice where He will be exhausted and want to quit, and as his coach, I will remind him of his goal and his need to push through. I will say something he doesn’t like to hear, like when we’re doing sprints after practice, and in his mind there is this self-imposed tyranny. He thinks that he can’t do it. His body is too tired. This is too much. There’s no way He’s going to be able to do it. And his response will usually be sabotage. He’ll moan, groan, push back, complain, try to quit, walk off the mat, talk back to me—I’ve seen it all. I’ve even been threatened in moments like these.

Here’s the deal: as his coach, I want for him what he said he wanted. I want to make him a state champion. I am trying to get him to do what he can’t do on his own. He wants to stand on that podium, but right now, at this moment, he would rather rest or quit, and he’s going to do whatever is in His power to sabotage my attempts at getting him in better shape.

Why? Here’s a leadership truth from Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve,

Self-differentiation always triggers sabotage. This is the aspect of leadership that is not emphasized enough, if at all, by most leadership theories that focus on vision, team-building, an so forth… The tendency of any leader when faced with this kind of crisis is to cease doing all that which had gone into differentiation. This is the moment when the adaptation pattern is likely to reverse itself and go in the direction of the most dependent and scared. This is the moment when the leader is most likely to have a failure of nerve and experience a strong temptation to seek a quick fix.”2

As a coach, I experience that pushback from my wrestler. And if I have a failure of nerve, I will say, “Okay, no big deal. We’ve done enough today.” Now, this is easy to see in the example of sports. If you’ve ever played a sport or been a coach, you’ve undoubtedly seen this play out a hundred times. But it is a universal truth of all leadership. It happens in the classroom, in the kitchen, in church, and in all of our personal relationships. And if we are going to be faithful to God to make disciples, plant churches, and renew our cities, we will have to expect crisis and sabotage. We’ll have to persevere through it without succumbing to the temptation to seek a quick fix.

Friedman calls the type of leaders who give in to the quick-fix peace mongers. Here’s what He says about them. “In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace monger.”

By that, I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consensus, a “middler,” someone who is so incapable of taking well-defined stands that his leadership “disability” seems to be genetic, someone who functions as if he had been filleted of his backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas—one whiff, on goes the emotional gas mask, and he flits. Such leaders are often “nice, if not charming.”

If we are going to be faithful to God to make disciples, plant churches, and renew our cities, we will have to expect crisis and sabotage.”

—Justin Dean

The Bible speaks to this tendency. “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe” (Prov. 29:25). “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). A peace-monger is a person who is trapped in the fear of man, they are a people pleaser. For this leader—in his heart, mind, and soul—man is big and God is small. His own reputation is too good to be tarnished when Christ calls him into further conflict. What will people think of me? Will they call me mean, or proud, or a meddler? We need to name this for what it is: This is sin. A peace monger gets tripped up in his own anxiety and sin and cannot lead others to greener pastures because he can’t manage the reactivity, crisis, and sabotage that all leadership creates.

The Example of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Jesus

Think about the leaders in Ezra and Nehemiah. Do you want to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple and Jewish society so that you can fulfill your life’s mission of worshipping God rightly and extending His kingdom on earth? Absolutely! Okay, prepare for crisis and sabotage. What kinds of crises and sabotage did they experience?

They experienced pushback from neighbors, along with angry and slanderous letters to the king. The people gave up on the temple to build their own homes. More letters were sent. In Ezra 9, the people will disobey God and intermarry with the Persians, and Ezra will have to go to some pretty extreme measures to call them to repentance and obedience to the will of God.

Now, consider Jesus. Did Jesus experience crisis and sabotage? He is the greatest leader the world has ever known, and all of his disciples abandoned him and his mission at the moment of crisis (Matt. 26:56). Not only that, but Peter opposed him to his face (Mark 8:33). All the disciples fell asleep when they were supposed to be praying in the garden (Matt. 26:36–46). Judas betrayed him (Matt. 26:49). Jesus remained faithful to his mission in the face of the crisis and sabotage that his own sinless leadership caused. He expected it to happen.

The reality is that most people say they want to change, but in reality, they prefer homeostasis, they prefer what they know, they prefer their own immediate comfort more than they do the mission God has called them to—the mission of becoming a mature disciple of christ that makes disciples.

Here’s how Paul says it in Ephesians 4:11–16,

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

This is what God has called all of us to do. This reality should be the core reality that shapes our days, our weeks, our months, and our lives. But most of the time, it doesn’t. And when a real leader calls a person to this, and the leader starts to hold that person accountable to this high calling, the person will push back, get angry, and try to sabotage the leader.

The Expectations of a Leader

I’m reminded of a great line from The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. Aslan says, “Oh Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good!”3 Similarly, Edwin Friedman says, “If there is a moment of truth in leadership, it is amid this type of crisis. The important thing to remember about the phenomenon of sabotage is that it is a systemic part of leadership—part and parcel of the leadership process. Another way of putting this is that a leader can never assume success because he or she has brought about a change. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured a resultant sabotage that he leader can feel truly successful.”4

Try to implement a new rhythm in your family’s liturgy and see what happens. Try to start family devotions at the dinner table and see if that good leadership decision goes smoothly. You have to expect pushback and sometimes sabotage. “I have to go to the bathroom.” “I need to go do my chores.” The kids transform into comedians and do everything in their power to get everyone else to be silly and not take this time seriously. Not only that, but you will try to sabotage it as well. “I’m too tired tonight.” “I don’t feel like it.” “The kids aren’t even paying attention anyway.” Oh Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good!

It seems to me that this is a universal principle. Good leaders must expect and plan for crisis and sabotage and not grow weary in well doing; for in due season we will reap, if we faint not (Gal. 6:9).

  1. David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006), 236.
  2. Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), 257.
  3. C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 185.
  4. Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), 259.
Justin Dean

Justin Dean is lead pastor of Sacred City Church in Davenport, Ia.

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