The Sabotage

There is a meeting. There is a problem. Discussion. Solution. Agreement.  Resolution. Adjournment.  Everyone goes home.  Suddenly an email pops up. A phone call is made. A conversation happens in the parking lot. A cyber meeting takes place. Chaos ensues. The problem is not solved. It just got worse. There is confusion. Frustration. Finger pointing. Another meeting. More clarification. Discussion. Consensus. Agreement. Resolution. Adjournment. Everyone goes home.  An email pops up. A phone call is made. A conversation happens in the parking lot.  A cyber meeting takes place. Chaos ensues. The problem is not solved. It just got worse. There is confusion. Frustration. Finger pointing. Trust is dwindling. Ill will is rising. Exhaustion is setting in.   Remind me, what exactly was the problem?

Maybe the problem isn’t the problem.

Maybe the problem is: The system has a pattern of sabotage.


What’s a leader to do?

Here are a list of options.

1. Ignore the problem

2. Ignore the behavior

3. Join in the behavior

4. Stay the course

5. Name the behavior

6. Stay self differentiated

7. Understand that sabotage is normal, predictable and expected.

8. Get angry.

9. Get annoyed.

10. Drink wine.

11. Stay mature.

12. Be immature.

13. Become manipulative, passive aggressive and triangulate

14, Remember the big picture. Get in the balcony. Gain perspective.

15. Breathe.

Micheal McKinney comments on one of my favorite books, A Failure of Nerve,  by Edwin Friedman:

Sabotage “is part and parcel of the systemic process of leadership” writes Edwin Friedman in A Failure of Nerve. “Sabotage is not merely something to be avoided or wished away; instead, it comes with the territory of leading, whether the territory is a family or an organization. And a leader’s capacity to recognize sabotage for what it is—that is, a systemic phenomenon connected to the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system and not to the institution’s specific issues, makeup, or goals—is the key to the kingdom.” 

The “shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system” just referred to, have a lot to do with people’s insecurities, people trying to measure up and just trying to merely hold on to what they have or where they are. It is a reaction that some people get to strong and clearly defined leadership. Knowing that this is part of the leadership process and not an unexpected turn of events is helpful in maintaining a leader’s authenticity. 

An effective leader should expect to be attacked as a result of their leadership. Some people will react negatively to what a leader stands for and then begin a campaign of sabotage in order to draw attention away from themselves or the mission. Friedman says “this is the moment when a leader is most likely to have a failure of nerve and experience a strong temptation to seek a quick fix.” This is the moment of truth. “A leader can never assume success because he or she has brought about a change. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the subsequent sabotage that the leader can feel truly success.

Here’s the deal: leadership is hard, hard work. It’s not about easy fixes, or quick rewards. It’s definitely not about being popular, liked, or respected. It’s lonely. It requires courage. It demands that you do not lose your nerve.   That’s your job, dear leader.

A note about the sabotager, bless their hearts. Sabotagers don’t know they are sabotaging when they sabotage.  I don’t believe people wake up in the morning with that intention – unless they work in Washington D.C –. I do believe they are God’s children with emotional agendas. Their agenda may be simply to have power, be recognized, be heard, be validated or be acknowledged. Or, their agenda may run deeper. They may want your job.

The ultimate question is not about the health of the leader or the unhealthy behavior of the sabotager. The real question is, How healthy is the system? Is the system healthy enough to guide and correct the sabotager through the problem and the agreed resolution? Can the community see sabotage when it is happening and can they hold to the vision when voices are speaking contrary to the vision? Talk about hard work.

Jesus was sabotaged all of the time. So was Paul. So was Peter. So was Moses. So was David.  So was Mary Magdalene.  If you are a leader who has experienced sabotage, you are in good company.

Here are my top ten do’s and don’ts when addressing sabotage:

1, Do Expect It.

2. Don’t get angry about it. – Anger serves you no purpose. – Stay non anxious.

3. Do Name It.

4. Do correct the behavior on a systems level.  Set group norms and expectations. When those norms are not honored, address them as a community.

5. Don’t take it personally. – It’s not about you. – Again, stay non anxious.

6. Do expect the organization to self correct and address destructive behavior.

7, Do empower your leaders to name behavior that hurts healthy process.

8. Do limit decision-making and discussions via email and other electronic devices.

9. Don’t make it spitting match between you and the Sabotoger. It’s not about you, and nobody cares how far you can spit.

10. Do keep your eyes on the big picture. Keep your perspective.

When you have experienced sabotage?  How did you address it?


  1. Wish I had known this back in about 1998. I did however turn to Norman Vincent Peale’s advice in his “How to Cope With 10 of Life’s Toughest Problems”, the chapter on “how to cope with criticism”.

  2. Shelly, once again, you have penned good thoughts. Along with you, I think it is so important for a leader to discern what there is in organizational response to leadership that is simply systemic, and more about the responding organization than the leader. But in my experience there is a very fine line between systemic sabotage and a process that can only be identified as “demonization” of the leader. While sabotage may be systemic and a reflection of the state of the organization, demonization is directed toward the leader. Often persons who enjoy being a part of sabotage, find equal delight in demonization. Unfortunately, while there are ways to deal with sabotage that are relatively objective and impersonal, there is very little that leaders can do about demonization.

    Perhaps, the most significant example of sabotage becoming demonization is the experience of President Obama. Republicans made it clear on the night of his inauguration that they wished to sabotage his presidency, and began plotting ways to accomplish this. Demonization of President Obama emerged as a major strategy in carrying out the sabotage. One of the more negative aspects of this demonization is that it has used the basic racism latent in many Americans to generate suspicion of President Obama’s origins, patriotism, and motives. The consequences of this demonization have been very negative, not only for the President personally, but more importantly, for the nation as a whole. It is clear he has been made a less effective President both nationally and internationally than he might have been.

    As I make this comment, I have no experience that would suggest that anyone is either trying to sabotage your initiatives or attempting to demonize you. It is to my great joy that I have yet to hear a negative comment about your leadership. But I think as good as your suggestions are for dealing with sabotage, we all need to be in prayer that it is the Holy Spirit, and not the spirit of sabotage or demonization, that moves through the Orchard Park community as you work as hard as you do to provide us with effective leadership. Keep up the good work!

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