When Followers Attack: Facing the Inevitable Interpersonal Conflict of Leadership

Every leader endures the challenge of being under the microscope of critical dissatisfaction.  In my experience effective change agents and leaders face a myriad of disheartening personal attacks often from people they know and always with gut wrenching repercussions.  Slander, inference and complete misrepresentation are part and parcel of the leadership experience.  I was reminded of this again from a friend of mine grieving the betrayal they felt by members of their own leadership team. Members of my friend’s team masterfully undermined my friend’s leadership without ever specifically talking with them about the dissatisfaction they felt.
The conundrum faced by many leaders I work with is rooted in a misconception about conflict i.e., that interpersonal conflict is to be endured not addressed in hopes that at some future point the integrity of their motives and their service would be recognized by all and their leadership decisions vindicated. Often this misconception is rooted in faith convictions around the actions of Jesus Christ during his trial.  A quotation anticipating the betrayal and kangaroo court Jesus faced from the prophet Isaiah is regularly repeated to me as I ask them about their response, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7, NIV)  This strategy of silence is great if one anticipates dying I suppose.  However, while it reflects the outward confidence and inner character Jesus exhibited in the face of false accusation during his trial it is not literal – Jesus did speak during his arrest and trial and questioned the inconsistencies of his accusers and answered their direct inquiries.

When Making a Defense is Important

Silent leaders in times of conflict abdicate the narrative of the situation to their critics. The result is that followers feel rudderless in the organization and ultimately feel betrayed by the leader’s unwillingness to step up to the demands of the pressure. (See my Article, “Servant Leadership and the Exercise of Discipline” at http://raywheeler.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/servant-leadership-and-the-exercise-of-discipline/)

It occurred to me once in reading Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that I was reading a blatant defense of his role (authority and influence) as a leader. Clearly the legitimacy of Paul’s leadership was at stake in the minds of the Corinthians who had already received a rather pointed missive correcting their misapplication of the Christian message.  The resulting dissonance in the relationship between the Corinthian church and Paul forced him to defend his integrity, position and role toward the Corinthians.  Apparently his first letter generated controversy and even rejection.  As is often the case in conflict, his authority was challenged (7:8-16).

Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians anticipating seeing them after his exposure to their slanderous incrimination of his character and motives (13:1).  Paul states he prefers a warm and collegial reception, but is prepared to be a disciplinarian if need be for the sake of the health of the Corinthian church (12:20-13:1).

The entire letter of 2 Corinthians models transparent and authentic leadership conversation.  Read Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Pay specific attention to the fact that Paul defends himself and does not allow misconceptions or accusations about his motives and intention to assert themselves without a challenge.

Recriminations Are Unoriginal – Don’t Give Them Too Much Power

The recriminations aimed at Paul were personal and direct.  They came from people for whom he cared deeply and for whom he had suffered greatly.  I found it to be extremely encouraging to simply list the recriminations Paul faced.  Why?  Because they once they are down on paper two things emerge. First, they are unoriginal.  Recriminations are common place and rooted in a variety of motives. Second, when I observed how common the recriminations leveled at Paul were (the same recriminations have been leveled at me as a leader) innuendo and incrimination lost the power to command my attention to the point of immobilizing my ability to make decisions and lead.  If you are a leader you will face incrimination unjustly delivered.  You will also make your share of mistakes.

Put Recriminations into Proper Perspective  

Review the list of recriminations made against the Apostle Paul.  As you read these think about the recriminations you face or have faced as a leader.  I am certain your experience will parallel Paul’s – you are not a distinctively bad leader if you face these recriminations.

  • 1:17; that he was two-faced, saying one thing and doing another (6:8).
  • 2:4; that he was insensitive and uncaring (6:12).
  • 2:10; that he was unforgiving.
  • 2:17; that he was into the gospel for the money or personal advancement (7:2).
  • 3:5; that he was ineffective (specifically inadequate to the task).
  • 4:2; that he was self-seeking and manipulative (7:2).
  • 4:5; that he was self promoting.
  • 5:9; that he was ambitious.
  • 5:12; that he was arrogant (boastful, 10:8).
  • 7:2; that he took advantage of others (11:9; 12:14; 12:11-17)
  • 8:13; that he was inconsistent in his policies.
  • 8:20; that he absconded with church funds.
  • 10:1; that he was a coward, afraid to personally face the issues.
  • 10:10; that he was not much of a teacher.
  • 10:14; that he claimed credit for things he had not done.
  • 11:5; that he was inferior in his gifts and abilities (it was this summary accusation that he pointedly addresses in ch.s 11-13).
  • 12:13; that he had treated the Corinthians as inferior.
  • 13:6; that he had failed the test.
  • 13:10; that he was overly severe in his treatment of failure.

Admit Mistakes Quickly and Learn from Them

Paul’s tone in response to these recriminations is authentic (personal) and direct.  He addresses both the overt and the implied attacks on his character and motives by holding out his life as an illustration and explaining details surrounding his decisions that the Corinthians could not have known.  Similarly Paul exhibits and openness to learning and feedback from the Corinthians.  The letter does not smack of arrogance of excuses.

Paul’s response indicates clear boundaries – he served, he willingly accepted suffering but also expected reciprocity.  He was neither a patsy nor a pushover.


If you lead well expect conflict from those closest to you. Engage the conflict humbly and honestly.  Keep the mission of your organization clearly in front of you.  Hold people accountable to that mission – hold yourself accountable to the mission. Do not shirk from defending decisions made with information not commonly available. On the other hand do not hesitate to admit bad decisions based on poor or incomplete information – they happen. Those who follow want to know two important things.

First, followers want the assurance that leaders stay engaged in the realities the organization faces and are willing to both listen and make difficult decisions.

Second, followers want leaders to help them define reality.  What external pressures challenge the organization?  What internal resources are needed to meet the challenge?  What strategy is in place to secure more resources if the internal resources are insufficient? What support exists for followers who are called upon to sacrifice for some future benefit?

If your communication as a leader is anything but authentic and personal the confidence of your followers (employees, stake holders, peers) will wane accordingly. Take a lesson from Paul and embrace conflict, address innuendo and communicate transparently.