Project Update ~ 15 Indicators for Discerning Robust versus Hazardous Systems: Who and What Deserves Our Trust?

Recently, I edited a friend’s medical research grant. It seeks funding for a follow-up study on a major public health issue in America. The research focuses on identifying specific biological indicators of a particular disease, and figuring out the mechanisms of how the interaction of body and “biomarkers” works. The core idea is that if we can discern the connections that predict the disease, then we can work on prevention and improve overall health.

That was providential timing, as I’ve been trying to finalize my list of indicators for discerning what constitutes a healthy versus malignant leader, and a trustworthy versus toxic organization. From my work with Shannon Hopkins and Andy Schofield on The Transformational Index, I know we need these kinds of project development and early warning evaluation systems. They help us “measure what matters” and be more intentional about the kinds of transformational impact we both hope to have and are actually having.

I’m aiming my forthcoming Field Guide to lead to using The Transformation Index more effectively. And, despite what seems like a very long series of “delays,” this is the year the Field Guide gets finished, Lord willing! Here’s the latest update on my progress.

Frustrating “Delays” Can Turn Out

to be Fortunate “Developments”

When you’re working on a huge project, apparent “delays” can be exasperating. But, with the project I’ve been writing the last seven years, it turns out they’ve been crucial to putting it together well enough so I only have to do it just once. I’m not looking for perfection, but complete enough so that no major revisions are needed anytime soon after, as I have a long line-up of other projects that have been waiting for this one to get finished.

One (hopefully last) delay now seems a key to unlock the best version of what I can offer. Somewhere along the line, I realized the importance of using this Field Guide as an entry-level handbook for “quality control.” It is the first component in an eventual system for evaluating how friendly or hostile of an environment we create for both participants and recipients in our social enterprises. So, it was important to make sure that all this development work led to some kind of well-defined checklist. That would be vital for doing due diligence in evaluating healthy vs. malignant leaders, and trustworthy vs. toxic systems. That’s something both of my target audiences need, even if for different reasons: (1) survivors of abuse of power, plus their support network – to process what happened to them; and (2) organizational developers – to prevent power abuse from happening to others.

With such a huge number of things that could be on that kind of checklist, how do I boil it all down to a manageable number? And how to cover the big picture of what needs to be evaluated – and yet avoid duplication? Even after that, how do I create some kind of framework for categorizing the points so they make more sense as a set, and their organizing principles are more memorable?

The good news is, I think I’ve got my healthy-versus-hazardous checklist items pretty much finalized!

  • Nine Elements to Discern Healthy or Malignant Leaders, and Trustworthy or Toxic Organizations
  • Six “S” Features for a Successful Project, Organization, or Partnership.

Below are those two lists, along with the draft of their short descriptions. (Fotolia art illustration licensing and title information is at the bottom of the post.)

So, as I plunge back into the task of editing the rest of the chapters, I can work on filling in details of various indicators – what qualities and activities to watch for that indicate a particular aspect is/isn’t in place. One less obstacle to hurdle over on the pathway to the finish line!

Nine Elements to Discern Healthy or Malignant

Leaders, and Trustworthy or Toxic Organizations

I developed this list of nine characteristics primarily from reflecting on the dynamics in sick organizational systems that I’ve experienced myself, and secondarily from other situations I’ve observed. What happened in these case studies was that “commenders” from outside the organization used their own personal prestige and their agency’s or business’ resources to prop up some other organization’s authoritarian leaders and systems. They vouched for the credibility of the other leader/organization. However, only once have I seen one of these commenders accept any responsibility when the actions of those other leaders/organizations they’ve promoted harmed others. Only once in 40 years of working with non-profits …

This is serious stuff, because these nine elements deal with authority, money, and branding – or, if you prefer alliteration: power, prosperity, and prestige. A true or false image for a leader and organization is based on this set of features. And in every case I’ve experienced or studied, when a leader is malignant or a system is sick, something is significantly “off” in all three clusters of the credentials, the financial aspects, and the reputation that’s communicated. If we want to “do good plus do no harm,” we have to be willing to investigate these nine areas and challenge anything that turns out to be a façade hiding self-benefit or disguising “the greater good” at the expense of those supposedly being helped.

At this point, I only have short descriptions drafted. I have plenty of notes to draw from in getting those more detailed. But meanwhile, constructing a manageable framework out of a massive amount of material has been the more important task. Here’s what I’ve come up with as areas we need to investigate for discerning whether someone or some system is worthy of our trust or not.

Investigate the Credentials of a Prospective Leader or Organization (Authority/Power)

1. Education – Training, job-related skills, and relational abilities to work well with people. Plus the organization has accurate and reasonable job descriptions, training requirements,  background checks, and supervision standards for both employees and volunteers.

2. Certification – Formal, periodic evaluations of the emotional, relational, and spiritual maturity of individuals. Transparency, financial accountability, and appropriate governance of organizations.

3. Verification – Ongoing oversight and accountability for personal and organizational activities, without punishing whistleblowers who identify any lack of integrity.

A sick system that we have no business trusting attempts to fake an emphasis on “the common good,” while failing to protect participants and recipients from harm. It will install as leaders, role-models, and spokespeople those who prove they are unqualified (immature and/or unskilled) or disqualified (by lack of character issues and/or presence of harmful behaviors) for such positions. It will fail to implement reasonable requirements for checking into the credentials claimed by leaders and organizations, and will accept flimsy evidence of supposed qualifications and accountability. It will attempt to silence any who dissent, critique, or investigate its leaders, projects, or systems.

Investigate the Financials Involving Funds, Property, and People (Money/Prosperity)

4. Capitalization – There is due diligence about donations, employment, salary levels, appropriate stewardship of funds, and legal use of restricted/designated donations.

5. Publication – Products (such as books, blogs, speaking engagements, convention sale booths) integrate the person’s or organization’s message with money.

6. Association – Contractual partnerships and informal networks serve to form some kind of co-branding and mutual promotion.

A sick system that we have no business trusting attempts to enhance its bottom line constantly. It will raise funds under false pretenses; misuse funds for the personal benefit of leaders, staff, board members – and their family, friends, and/or business partners; and fail to use restricted funds for the purposes they solicited them for. It will promote the creation, distribution, and purchase of emotionally manipulative, financially unnecessary, intellectually inferior products. It will use partnerships to boost its profile, especially through implying that holding network memberships in common means mutual recommendation and the presence of some kind of accountability.

Investigate the Substantials* for Facts or Façades (Brand/Prestige)

7. Reputation – Organizational insiders and outside commenders vouch for the supposed quality and integrity of the system’s people, purposes, and processes.

8. Promotion – Organizational insiders and outside commenders create public relations opportunities and campaigns to put forward the system’s mission.

9. Protection – Organizational insiders and outside commenders stand up for – or cover up for – the system, by whatever means they have available – financial, relational, legal, etc.

A sick system that we have no business trusting attempts to obscure the substance of its true and actual profile, while it elevates the style of its false and ideal image. It will hide behind the supposed safety of endorsements from individuals and organizations that take no actual responsibility for the system they’ve recommended if/when it is shown to have acted harmfully. It will use publicity campaigns and personal proxies to move its agenda forward, even when that requires such significant “spin” as to border on falsehood. It will use the “bully pulpits” of social media, legal maneuvers, and personal pressure to silence those with legitimate concerns, allegations, and challenges about the system.

*Update February 14, 2016: I’m not totally sold on the term Substantials here. I may change it to Influentials to at least keep the rhyming motif intact, or to something else. Both of them catch the drift of the what’s needed, but not perfectly. That’s just one of those things that you have to try it for a while to see what sticks.

Six “S” Features for a Successful Project,

Organization, Partnership, or Collaboration

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may find these six features below look familiar. I’ve posted versions of them before. Part of what makes them different in the Field Guide is that I’ll have art illustrations to go with the constructive and destructive versions of each of them, plus sets of questions that will help figure out which end of the +/ – spectrum a particular endeavor is.

"Business Connection Puzzle" © Scott Maxwell / Fotolia #6097698.


Safe meeting ground for working together. There is respect for the range of our diversity, and we treat all people with civility as colleagues – they are not slaves. No one is the dictator, and teamwork relies on welcoming people’s differences as a way of compositing corporate strength. Otherwise, we create a hostile work environment that causes people harm.


Fotolia_201958_XS flip11. PEOPLE

Suitable mission for the participants and recipients who are actually involved. Our strategies, activities, and projects are strength-based and specific to the people and places involved. They aren’t generic roles that anyone could fill anywhere, or irrelevant plug-and-play programs developed elsewhere. To stay humane, they must be customized to fit the actual human context.


Safety Net Catching Recycle Symbol12. RESOURCES

Scales of projects that match the context and make sense. Projects we undertake don’t overtax our current pool of participants or overuse the resources of the group we’re serving. Nor do these projects place an unsustainable burden on future generations, forcing them to try completing the project or to maintain it after we finish it.


Fotolia_765180_XS flip13. CULTURES

Sensitive message to communicate across cultural borders and boundaries. This is about listening carefully and being considerate with engaging in cross-cultural conversations, in order to find or create common ground for the common good. It also embraces our need to interact with people from other cultures in order to refine our own.


Risk Management14. TRAJECTORIES

Survivable methods in light of unavoidable changes coming from both inside and outside of the organization. To move forward into a future that includes us, we can’t stay static, or merely orbit around ways we’ve always done things. In a world constantly changing, that guarantees irrelevance and, at best, only maintains the illusion of movement when our creativity has ground to a halt.



Sustainable momentum for the organization to last beyond two generations. An “institution” is sometimes defined as an organization lasting more than two generations. The problem is how to pass on a legacy with flexibility so future participants are not bound by mission statements or methodologies that are impossible to make work in their era.


Some Final Thoughts

After I got my final list of 15 macro-indicators compiled, I spent time conducting thought experiments to test them out. I started out with the extensive base of my own experiences in six exceptionally toxic churches and non-profit ministries. And yes, using these checklists, I could analyze many aspects of what went wrong in each of them with leadership and organizational systems.

Then I mentally ran through some major investigations I’ve written about the last few years, or kept up with in my readings. For instance:

Sovereign Grace Ministries – The failure of this ministry network’s leaders to take responsibility for apparent abuse of power and negligence in protecting parishioners caused me to look deeper at issues of restitution, and when it’s appropriate to dismantle an organization, and if so, how to do it.

Mars Hill Church – This required me to study IRS regulations for their concepts of integrity in financial practices and governance, and to hone my research skills into other kinds of legal issues that non-profits face.

Emergent/Progressive Movement – This brought out concepts related to an “interlocking directory” that seemed determined to guard its “brand,” and created a type of “Christian Industrial Complex” to promote its celebrities and their products.

Numerous other less involved case studies brought up serious real-world issues like leadership authoritarianism, negligence in obeying civil authorities and regulatory agencies; misuse of the court system; subjugation of people groups; sexual harassment; and either general all-around legalistic control, laissez-faire chaos, or consumeristic culture of religious celebrities.

At the time, I knew intuitively it was important to get involved in exploring these case studies and carefully examining the issues they raised. But, I also felt frustrated because it seemed to delay my progress on the project. These days, I interpret them as necessary delays where I invested my time, and it’s now paying off. I can see where various indicators on my list of 15 are relevant to analyzing and interpreting these and other case studies with a holistic set of reasoned standards. It wasn’t procrastination, it was providential. So, that’s encouraging!

A redemptive edge to those debacles of spiritual abuse is forthcoming. These evaluation indicators were based on destructive events. But I believe they will make a significant difference for those who want to create and participate in social transformation endeavors that are trustworthy, not toxic, and that do good plus do no harm.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Fotolia Art Illustration Licensing Information

All nine images used in this post are © Scott Maxwell / Fotolia, and licensed to Brad Sargent (aka “futuristguy”).

The three images in the section on “Nine Elements to Discern Healthy or Malignant Leaders, and Trustworthy or Toxic Organizations” are, from left to right:

“Holding A Gold Star,” #12154781.

“Decision,” #12212124.

“Whistleblower,” 6928551.

The six images in the section on “Six ‘S’ Features for a Successful Project, Organization, Partnership, or Collaboration” are:

10 – “Business Connection Puzzle,” #6097698.

11 – “puzzle,” #201958.

12 – “Safety Net Catching Recycle Symbol,” #14254708.

13 – “thought broadcast,” #765180.

14 – “Risk Management,” #12475849.

15 – “Employee Newton’s Cradle,” #8702185.

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