You learn far more from negative leadership than from positive leadership. Because you learn how not to do it. And, therefore, you learn how to do it.
Today marks the first installment of my series on the Harmful, Moral Leadership of Bill Gothard. This series is taken from a research paper I wrote for one of my recent graduate classes on Leadership Studies.
Given its academic nature and length, I have decided to break it up into four sections. Each of these parts will be featured in a post every Thursday of this month.
Part 1: Introduction and Leadership Theory
Part 2: A History of Bill Gothard
Part 3: Bill Gothard’s Harmful Leadership Analyzed
Part 4: Final Reflections
As a final note, for clarity, I have posted sections of my paper below in the text that is italicized, with brief (non-italicized) commentary dispersed throughout.
This post will be a bit longer than I typically like to make posts, but the natural break in the paper really came after discussing each leadership style, so it did not make sense to break earlier. Feel free to read it at your leisure.
Please feel free to post questions or discuss these leadership styles in the comment section below! As always, I would love to hear your feedback!
On March 6th of 2014, a leader known to thousands was placed on administrative leave by his board of directors for recently publicized allegations of sexual misconduct with over 30 women. A week later, he released a statement explaining his resignation to his organizational members and the public. (The Gothard Files: A Case for Disqualification, 2014) This leader was in his 70s, having built an organization over forty years that had put on conferences with millions in attendance and accumulated a net worth of close to 100 million dollars. This leader had also rubbed shoulders with political leaders such as Governors Mike Huckabee from Arkansas and Sarah Palin from Alaska. He also counted Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their family from the popular TV show 19 Kids and Counting among his followers and friends. (Christianity Today, 2014) (Bailey S. P., 2014) Who was this leader and why did so many families and individuals follow him? His name is Bill Gothard and his organization is the still existing Institute of Basic Life Principles located in Oakbrook, Illinois. As to why so many followed him, even to their own harm and demise—this leadership profile analysis will present evidence for how Bill Gothard demonstrated a harmful and twisted mixture of transformational, charismatic, and servant-based leadership that blindly drew followers in and ultimately led to his and their ruin.
Before reviewing Gothard’s history as a leader and analyzing his leadership style in depth, there are well developed theories of leadership among leadership scholars worth reviewing that provide insight into his style and give credence to why his particular mixture of leadership styles has proven to be so toxic.
This paper examines a relatively new theory of leadership known as Harmful Leadership, a mixture of three established leadership styles: transformational leadership, charismatic leadership, and servant-based leadership.
Leadership studies have been of interest to many scholars and organizational leaders over the past century, crossing multiple disciplines within academia and finding application across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Among the various leadership theories and approaches, the three deemed most applicable in the case of Bill Gothard are theories and scholarship on transformational, charismatic, and servant-based leadership. This paper is not the first to note how a particularly morally driven leader can twist the use of these three leadership styles into a harmful and manipulative form of leadership. James Mohr pioneered an analysis looking at this specific mixture of leadership styles in his recent study on the morally driven, but harmful leadership of white supremacists. (Mohr, 2013) In order to better understand why this combination of leadership can have such a destructive impact, each style will first be reviewed briefly.
According to Northouse, “Transformational leaders are recognized as change agents who are a good role model, who can create and articulate a clear vision for an organization, who empower followers to meet higher standards, who act in ways that make others want to trust them, and who give meaning to organizational life.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 214) This theory of leadership began with foundational work by scholar James MacGregor Burns. He focused specifically on describing the connection between a transformational leader and his followers, revealing that transformational leadership often revealed a relationship between a leader who cared about inspiring change and better morality in people around him/her. The transformational leader accomplishes this through four primary characteristics: idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration. (Northouse, 2013, pp. 186-187) An apparent weakness in this style of leadership was soon commented on by other scholars though, who found that just as some leaders were concerned with changing people for the better around them, other leaders used those same four principles in dangerous ways to influence, to manipulate, and to abuse the people around them. Bass et. al. discusses this harmful style as pseudo-transformational leadership, revealing how each primary characteristic is used to accrue more power and influence on part of the leader and to keep followers dependent and naively loyal. (1999) Invariably, the nature of transformational leadership is that its strengths lie in its ability for leader and followers to connect and influence each other for a better, moral, collective good; however its greatest weaknesses also become apparent in how selfish and power-hungry leaders can use it just as effectively to harm others.
The first characteristic of transformational leadership idealized influence has been further studied as its own form of leadership, also known as charismatic leadership. Its development began alongside Burn’s seminal work on transformational leadership, by scholars R. J. House and Max Weber. House’ work in 1976 particularly lists out specific traits and characteristics of charismatic leadership that reveal charismatic leaders as confident, domineering, strong in their conviction of the moral rightness of their beliefs, having gained unquestioned acceptance and trust among their followers, and having developed an emotional component of affection and loyal obedience from their followers. (House, 1976, pp. 7-10) Another aspect of charismatic leadership revealed is that it often attracts followers who feel distress and uncertainty, who then find solace and the comfort of certainty in following the “right leader” with the “right answers” for their need. (House, 1976) (Northouse, 2013, p. 189) Northouse’ literature review of charismatic leadership reveals that later scholarship broadened the definition of charismatic leadership to include the important aspect of charismatic leaders successfully linking the followers identity to the collective identity of the organization. Understanding this concept of charismatic leadership is key for then realizing its potential harmful uses. Howell and Shamir elaborate on this in distinguishing between types of charismatic leaders and the types of followers they attract. In particular, they identify the type of followers that attach their self-identity to a harmful charismatic leader as the kind of people who are distressed and lack a clear understanding of their own identity. Because these individuals lack a clear vision of who they are, they attach their identity to the leader and membership within that leader’s organization. These followers are said to be just as key to the development of a harmful charismatic leader in that their attachment empowers this kind of leader. They empower the leader through dependency, blind obedience, attributing moral superiority to a leader with traits and certainty they desire to have, and ultimately through total relinquishment of power to a leader who consumes it gladly. (Howell & Shamir, 2005)
Servant Leadership is a theoretical approach to leadership that in many ways is counterintuitive to many common forms of leadership, as it is follower centric in its belief that a true leader leads by example through serving his or her followers first. This theory began developing through the work of Robert Greenleaf, who after working for AT&T for forty years decided to begin research on leadership theory that involved consensus building over coercion and serving others over serving self-interest. (Northouse, 2013, pp. 220-221) Several studies have been conducted since Greenleaf’s original work that attempt to describe various characteristics and attributes of servant leadership theory such as Laub (1999), Spears (2006), Wong & Davey (2007), Barbuto & Wheeler (2006), Dennis & Bocarnea (2005), Sendjaya et. al. (2008), and van Dierendonck & Nujiten (2011). Some common characteristics found across these various studies deemed to be core values within Servant Leadership are developing people, empowerment, authenticity, altruism, accountability, and value for community. (Northouse, 2013, pp. 223-224) Since then Liden, Pannaccio, et. al. have created a Servant Leadership model that describes the leadership style in three stages. It begins with antecedent conditions such as context and culture that drive servant leader behaviors. They then share seven servant leader behaviors: conceptualizing, emotional healing, putting followers first, helping followers grow and succeed, behaving ethically, empowering, and creating value for the community. These servant leader behaviors then create the third stage of outcomes, which are follower performance and growth, organizational performance, and societal impact. (Northouse, 2013, pp. 226-232, 248) Given it’s others-focused, altruistic nature many might question the examination of Servant Leadership theory as a component of harmful leadership, however it is possible as leaders can create follower trust through serving them, making them feel like they are a part of a bigger purpose as a member of the organization, and in doing so create a vulnerability that can be taken advantage of.
Mohr’s analysis of white supremacist leadership reveals that their style and approach utilized multiple strategies from each of these leadership theories previously discussed. As Mohr says,
The harmful leader uses a variety of strategies, combining beneficial and detrimental ones, creating a different approach to leadership than otherwise explained by servant, charismatic, or transformational leadership theories.(2013, p. 11)
His narrative-inquiry based research of white supremacist leaders revealed how they used this harmful mixture to first create purpose and vision, build community and a sense of belonging, focus on followers in a way that made membership and participation meaningful, empower and motivate followers, and to develop trust and respect. However these aspects of their leadership were merely a set of tools and traits masking their true desire to pursue and abuse power, to invoke fear, and to create a sense of isolation within anyone who questioned or doubted their leadership. (2013, pp. 5-10)
As he later concludes, “The harmful leadership approach often masks a leader’s selfish and narcissistic personality traits. However, by the time the mask has been removed, followers are already convinced of the leader’s greatness and may have difficulty breaking away from the leader’s influence.” (Mohr, 2013, p. 11)
In reviewing these leadership approaches, knowing their many strengths and potentially beneficial uses within an organization, it is truly sobering to think of someone utilizing them for harm and self-interest. In Mohr’s study many of the white supremacist leader’s he studied were completely convinced at one time of their own rightness in their leadership, their actions, and their beliefs. Their participation in his study though meant they were leaders who had already left their organizations and had begun the long, difficult work of deprogramming their racist beliefs and slowly realizing just what amount of harm they had wrought on themselves and others. (Mohr, 2013, p. 4) His work concludes by revealing the need for continued research on not just the exemplary leaders for good throughout society, but also a study of effective leaders of the day that are considered harmful, criminal, or extreme—Bill Gothard, allegedly would arguably fit within all three of those categories.
 For a more extensive literature review of these leadership theories please reference Mohr, 2013.
Bailey, J., & Axelrod, R. H. (2001). Leadership Lessons from Mount Rushmore: An Interview with James MacGregor Burns. The Leadership Quarterly , 12, 113-127.
Bailey, S. P. (2014, March 7). Conservative Leader Bill Gothard Resigns Following Abuse Allegations. The Washington Post , 2015 (April), p. 29. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/conservative-leader-bill-gothard-resigns-following-abuse-allegations/2014/03/07/0381aa94-a624-11e3-b865-38b254d92063_story.html.
Bass, B. M., & Steidlmeier, P. (1999). Ethics, Character, and Authentic Transformational Leadership Behavior. Leadership Quarterly , 10 (2), 181.
Cavalli, L. (1998). Considerations on Charisma and the Cult of Charismatic Leadership. Modern Italy , 3 (2), 159-171.
Conger, J. A. (1999). Charismatic and Transformational Leadership in Organizations: An Insider’s perspective on These Developing Streams of Research. Leadership Quarterly , 10 (2), 145-179.
GuideStar. (2015). GuideStar: Institute in Basic Life Principles. Retrieved April 29, 2015, from GuideStar : http://www.guidestar.org/organizations/36-6108515/institute-basic-life-principles.aspx
House, R. J. (1976). A 1976 Theory of Charismatic Leadership . In J. G. Hunt, L. L. Larson, & R. f. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED133827.pdf (Ed.), Leadership: The Cutting Edge (pp. 189-207). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Howell, J. M., & Shamir, B. (2005). The Role of Followers in the Charismatic Leadership Process: Relationships and Their Consequences. The Academy of Management Review , 30 (1), 96-112.
Mohr, J. M. (2013). Worlf in Sheep’s Clothing: Harmfrul Leadership with a Moral Facade. Journal of Leadership Studies , 7 (1), 18-32.
Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publications Inc.
Recovering Grace. (2014, February 3). The Gothard Files: A Case for Disqualification. Retrieved April 29, 2015, from Recovering Grace: http://www.recoveringgrace.org/gothardfiles/
Wells, G. A. (2014). Cults of Personality. Think , 13 (37), 13-17.
Wikipedia. (2014, December 31). Wikipedia: Bill Gothard. Retrieved April 29, 2015, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Gothard
*Most of these sources I have access to the PDF files of through my school library access, so if anyone has trouble finding access to the PDF’s please feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to send you a copy.
- Which leadership style’s harmful characteristics surprised you the most?
- If you are familiar with the Christian, Conservative Homeschool leaders I mentioned throughout my intro post last week, which harmful characteristics or leadership style did you connect most with any one of those leaders?
- Oftentimes, many of us were taught to not “bear a bad report” about another Christian leader or that “love covers a multitude of sins.” Just as these are often used to cover and hide abuse, how might they be used to cover and hide harmful leadership?
Until next time!