The Christian Leader – Who’s Running the Asylum?


We may hear the term, “the inmates are running the asylum” when someone describes a situation where the wrong, or the least qualified, people are making the decisions. In the consulting work my company does with organizations, clients frequently tell us, “I’m afraid he or she will quit if I try to make them comply with this…” Unfortunately, we hear some version of this refrain far more frequently than one might imagine. It raises the question of who actually is running an organization—be it a parish office, nonprofit apostolate or a for-profit business. If you are a leader, who actually is in charge of your “asylum”?

A Christian Leader’s Dilemma

As leaders, we are stewards, looking after the resources of the organization where we work. We have a responsibility for the success of that organization. I use “success” in the broadest sense here—define it however you wish. In any event, the parable of the talents provides guidance for us in this regard:

For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away…

Not addressing performance problems with one’s direct reports is akin to burying the one talent from the parable instead of doing something to earn more talents. Ignoring performance problems and noncompliance with policies for any reason ultimately damages the organization.

It goes beyond this, though. If you’re in a leadership position, you are responsible for the people you lead. While 1 Peter 4:10 refers to spiritual gifts, it seems applicable here in a broad sense as well:

As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.

We’re responsible for our organizations’ success, and for the success of our people. It is a huge responsibility; we cannot take it lightly. Our people want the opportunity to grow and improve. Not addressing improvement areas with them denies them that opportunity.

An Example a Leader May Face

For example, a leader may need to address the behavior of a worker we’ll call “Sam.” Sam’s work is technically correct nearly 100% of the time. He normally completes his assignments on time and within budget. However, he is a poor listener, cuts others off when they’re speaking and comes across rudely at times. He isn’t aware of the negative impact he has on others.  Of course, if he is aware of what he’s doing and the impact of his behaviors, then you have a more difficult problem to address. (By the way, we see this at parishes, apostolates, and other well-intentioned ministries, in addition to the secular workplace.) There are myriad situations requiring leaders to have difficult discussions. As leaders, each of us must conduct those often tough discussions, addressing whatever the issues are with our “Sam.”

Common Approaches Leaders May Try

Some typical, ineffective approaches leaders often attempt with their “Sams” include:

Avoidance and Accommodation: The leader is unassertive, hoping that ignoring the issue will make it go away.  Actually, ignoring improper behavior can create a sense of empowerment for the person who is misbehaving. At the very least, it implies that the behavior is acceptable.

Assuming Someone Else Will Address It: This “not my job” approach essentially ends up being a group version of avoidance and accommodation if no one wants to step up and address the issue.

Addressing Needed Changes in Group Meetings: Rather than directly discussing someone’s performance privately with them, the leader makes some general comments at a group meeting. The leader hopes the offending party will understand and change their behavior. The rest of the team probably knows who you’re talking about. The person who is the subject of the general comments may not understand that the comments are for his sake. Or they may know you’re referring to them, recognize your hesitancy to talk with them about it and feel more empowered.

Simply Asking for a Change and Hoping They Will Change. Certainly, any such discussions need to be tactful. As well, the suggestion for changes should be specific enough to let them know what success looks like. However, without monitoring and reinforcement, that is, accountability, it’s not reasonable to expect much change in most cases.

Sending Them to Training. Let someone else try to “fix” them. It takes the heat off of us, after all. Besides, he or she is bright, and they should be able to “get it,” and make some changes when they get back to work. Even if they learn to be more effective, though, will your organization’s culture support they changes they want to make?

Leaders – Be Not Afraid

In attempting to use any of the foregoing approaches, we are shirking our duties as leaders. It’s not good for Sam, or for the organization we’re in charge of. In 2 Cor 9: 6, St Paul tells us,

Consider this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.

Are we sowing sparingly by avoiding the difficult discussions our people need from us? Or are we sowing bountifully, using the gifts and talents God gave us to bring out the gifts and talents of those with whom we work? Are we sowing sparingly or bountifully in creating a viable, thriving organization that will successfully carry out its mission?

Why are we so afraid that, if we hold someone accountable, they may leave? From a practical point of view, there is a demographic trend at work here. It is, very often, difficult to find and keep good people. There is simply more demand than supply for many positions. Beyond that, though, much of the fear simply is irrational. Rationally speaking, keeping under-performers around actually increases the risk of running off the high performers who pick up their slack.

We can move beyond the fear factor by taking our concerns to God and praying for guidance in addressing the particularly difficult issues. Prov 16:3 tells us,

Entrust your works to the LORD, and your plans will succeed.

But if you need still more encouragement, consider Is 41:10:

Do not fear: I am with you;

do not be anxious: I am your God.

I will strengthen you, I will help you,

I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

There is no need to be fearful if we use the good sense God gave us and follow His guidance. Praying for discernment–for His guidance– before difficult decisions is a must for the Christian leader.

Using Our Good Sense as Leaders

In addition to praying for guidance,  the Lord needs us to do our part as leaders. To more effectively deal with these difficult decisions, consider implementing or beefing up your practices in the following areas.

Set clear expectations for your people. Unless a leader sets clear, unambiguous expectations up front, it is difficult later on to have a discussion about what’s not being done properly. The “properly” part was not defined, to begin with.

Provide appropriate monitoring and feedback to your people. Don’t wait for an annual or semi-annual performance evaluation to provide feedback. Make your feedback more continual and real-time oriented. Check in frequently to be sure that your people are doing what you’ve asked. If they’re new to a task, or unsure about doing it, check in even more frequently. Don’t leave it up to chance. Many leaders severely underestimate the amount of monitoring and feedback their people need in order to embrace change effectively.

The details do matter. This includes the front-end details, setting expectations, and those throughout, monitoring performance and providing feedback. As St. Paul tells us at 1 Cor 14:40,

…everything must be done properly and in order.

The Tone Is Set at the Top

The organizational tone is set at the top of the organization. As leaders, what sort of example do we set individually for others to follow? Do we walk the talk and hold ourselves accountable? Whether we have an officially endowed title of “leader” or not, we each function as a leader somewhere, somehow. We exercise leadership in attempting to influence others at our parish, at work, and at home. Do we set a good example in having tactful but difficult discussions in an effort to help everyone improve? What are we doing to help them be, to borrow from Matthew Kelly, the “best version” of themselves? Are we nurturing them, and helping them develop their God-given talents for God’s Greater Glory?

At James 3:1, we see a reference to teachers—and a good leader should be a good teacher:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you realize that we will be judged more strictly…

Rest assured that we will find ourselves in difficult situations in our formal or informal roles as leaders.  It is not if, but when. Let all of us pray for the grace to carry out our roles as leaders in a morally responsible way.


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4 thoughts on “The Christian Leader – Who’s Running the Asylum?”

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this and I fully agree with the short,
    helpful listing of expectations, monitoring and discernment you shared for
    managing difficult and otherwise awkward subordinates. While it is likely
    apparent to you in your work, readers may not see a difference I believe exists
    in comparing the roles of leadership and management. My experience is that management
    and leadership are tough distinctions to accept for some individuals in various
    role situations—irrespective of education experience, and value as a resource.
    These distinctions become can even become more blurred for some outside of
    earning a living and inside a parish ministry. In my experience, the awkward subordinates are
    the management tier to which I feel your helpful pointers are appropriately directed.
    This management level is most often entrusted with responsibilities over lesser
    skilled subordinates to ensure completion of tasks, or works cooperatively among
    a cross functional peer group toward meeting organizational objectives. Managers
    in Parish positions are not always in that role because of careful discernment
    and I consider that contributes to a sense of asylum style conditions. Managers
    who develop skills for communicating expectations, monitoring performance, and
    utilizing good discernment in their roles may potentially be great candidates
    for leadership, but may not actually be cut out for the role of being a leader

    1. Thank you for your comments. Indeed, there are differences between management functions and leadership functions per se. In working with a variety of for-profit and nonprofit entities, we believe that in most organizations, people in a general management slot must be able to do both effectively, although there will be a natural tendency to favor one over the other, and this varies from person to person. As well, we take the view of Hersey and Blanchard that leadership is any attempt to influence others, regardless of whether the box on the org chart labels one as a leader. Thus, there are formal leaders running (hopefully) an organization or part of it, and there often are informal leaders as well. Doing the work of the Lord, be it in the parish or diocesan office, or some other ministry or apostolate, is important enough that we encourage the use of all our talents and gifts, for the greater glory of God, and using best practices in managerial leadership is part of all of that.

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