Complicit Leadership: A Reason for Outrage

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Whenever corruption, divisiveness, or dysfunction arrives on the scene, we justifiably shine the spotlight on the obvious: the perpetrators who directly carry out destructive behavior. They stand in the foreground of the drama. They also can serve as a distraction, for often a more serious leadership problem is at play.

Not so obvious is the conduct of the senior leadership that sits in the background. The despicable conduct of those in the foreground is not possible apart from the irresponsibility of the leaders in the background, for they have higher authority. Yet these silent perpetrators–fearful of a pushback, laden with indecisiveness, overly concerned about image, opting to remain inconspicuous–cling to the sidelines, say little or nothing, do little or nothing, turn a blind eye, set other priorities, claim busyness, rationalize the state of affairs, or only make anemic interventions. We have in Eli the High Priest such a leader (I Samuels 2: 12-35; 3: 11-14).

Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinebas, were priests under his jurisdiction. They ate meat that was to be offered for sacrifices and seduced young women who assisted at the Tabernacle. The New Living Translation calls them scoundrels. As an old man, Eli did confront his sons on one occasion. However, his admonition was ineffective, for it did not stop their blasphemy. Despite his old age and feeble confrontation, Eli still had responsibility as the High Priest. In fact, God repeatedly warned Eli to discipline his sons (I Samuel 3:13). Under the authority of God, Eli could have dismissed his sons from priesthood. He did not. Eli could have cut them off from the community (Numbers 15: 30). He did not. Therefore, God harshly judged Eli, making good on the promise to bring an early death to Eli’s sons and the rest of his family as well as cut his family off from the line of priests.

When things go into disarray, stop and look beyond the obvious. Make an observation of the behavior of the leader and then the response of the leader’s leader. What roles do leaders and leaders of leaders play in corruption, dysfunction, strife, and unresolved conflict? I submit that complicit leadership is the foremost problem among many leaders. Complicity is their fatal flaw. While the drama of Hophni and Phinehas is a case-in-point, the fundamental problem extended beyond their abuse of authority. It was Eli’s negligence—his failure to exercise his higher authority. In his negligence, he undermined the integrity of the priesthood. Similarly, complicit leaders today give tacit approval of wrong doing. In essence, they say it is okay. They cover up or conceal, deny, minimize, or otherwise fail to challenge wrongful conduct, while they simultaneously undermine that which is right.

I am not talking only about complicity in the high profile dramas of sexual predators and financial impropriety, although these offenses certainly count. I also am talking about the innumerable ways in which we give complicit leaders a pass or allow them to fly under our moral radar screens. I am talking about the less-dramatic but widespread instances of complicity that perpetuate favoritism, self-serving agendas, blaming the victim, passive aggressiveness, divide and conquer, false generosity, preying on fears and vulnerabilities, justifying the means by the end, misusing scripture for personal gains, delusions of grandeur, and playing mind-control games.

Under the authority of God, we should be outraged by this type of leadership. Every leader has a choice, and inevitably every leader will have to choose over this point: To be complicit or not to be complicit, that is the choice. When leaders fail to make the right choice, we should take a stand in the foreground, shine the spotlight on them, and loudly proclaim: “No mas…no mas! Complicity is wrong.” Unless we take a stand, we too are choosing to be complicit.