The Dangers of Echo Chamber Leadership

January 29, 2018

We leaders often enjoy the affirmation and adulation of others as we express our ideas, provide direction, and set future courses.

And we sometimes enjoy it so much that we only want people to agree with us and affirm us, even if we are wrong.

It’s called echo chamber leadership. Properly defined, it’s an environment in which leaders encourage and encounter only beliefs or opinions that match their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas and pushback are not considered.

For certain, it’s very dangerous. And Christian leaders are not invulnerable to it, far from it. Indeed the evangelical celebrity culture exacerbates the problem.

What are some key issues that help us leaders not fall into the echo chamber leadership trap? Here are six considerations:

  1. It is the leader’s responsibility to avoid the echo chamber. We can’t lay the blame on the shoulders of those who may be under our leadership. Leaders may have firing or some other type of punitive authority over them. Leaders must take the necessary steps, not the leader’s followers.
  2. Sycophants are extremely dangerous. They take the echo chamber to its extreme to let leaders know how wonderful they are. They gush over them, fawn over them, and seek to please them unendingly. Leaders can really enjoy such adulation and attention. They can make the leader seem the paragon of perfection. Such pride is a forerunner to a fall.
  3. Leaders must seek out people who care enough about them to speak truth to them. A few years ago, Brad Waggoner, the number two leader at LifeWay, said some things to me that really ticked me off. I let him know I was not happy. His response: “I care more about you than the consequences of telling you. Go on and fire me.” Such friends are priceless, especially if they work for you. By the way Brad was right and I was wrong.
  4. Social media and blogs can drive leadership to the echo chamber. Because any critic, naysayer, or nutcase can have a voice in the digital world, leaders can be tempted to withdraw to the seeming comfort and affirmation of the echo chamber. But the echo chamber is actually more dangerous than exposure to the critics and the crazies.
  5. The leader’s response to contrary opinions and criticisms will send a message to the watching world. I was in the room when someone suggested a contrary opinion to the leader. He blew up like an implosion with 1,000 sticks of dynamite. We got the message. Don’t say a word unless we agree with him and can affirm him.
  6. Moral failure is common among leaders who dwell in echo chambers. These leaders are convinced they are God’s gifts to humanity. They are the smartest person in the room. After all, everyone has told them so. They cannot fail. They will not be tempted. Then they are tempted and they fall. And they usually fall hard.

Nathan is one of my heroes of Scripture. He had the courage to speak truth and confront King David (2 Samuel 12). The consequences could have been dire and deadly. But Nathan loved David too much not to speak truth to him.

I am thankful for those who have Nathan-like courage. And, at least in this case, I am thankful for leaders who respond like David.

The echo chamber is a siren song. It leads to failure, destruction, and even death.

None of us leaders are exempt. Stay strong in the Lord.

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11 Comments

  • Alan Mizelle says on

    Good points, Thom. I especially like the inclusion of numbers 3 and 5. Constructive criticism is almost always a good thing. The response from a good leader MUST not be a “knee-jerk” reaction rather a carefully thought out, prayed out, factual response.

  • Well-said!! You told the truth about leadership, and drove home the fact that leadership is not for the immature. It takes courage to listen to ideas unlike your own, and admit that somebody besides you might have something valuable to contribute. Excellent points made here. Thank you!

  • Hmmm…this sounds like a certain “leader” of the free world! Talk about a sycophant! We have had this problem at my church, but that person resigned, and we are currently looking for a person who knows how to, “Walk humbly with your God.”

  • I’ve read that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower never approved a battle plan until he found someone who was ardently opposed to it. Why? More often than not, the dissenter noted some genuine flaws in the plan that needed to be corrected.

    One more thing: when a leader involves other people in the decision-making process, those people are more likely to have his back if the decision has any negative reaction (after all, the decision was theirs, too). When a leader makes a decision by himself, he tends to take the heat by himself.

  • I suppose celebrity complex is a temptation for every pastor, no matter the size of the church. We can easily become celebrities in our own mind.

    I’m fortunate to have a wife who sees through all that and won’t me get away with it. Conversations can at times be tense, but she is God’s gift to me and I am very grateful. She keeps me grounded and pops my inflated balloons. When appropriate, she also lifts me up when I need it.

    I am, indeed, blessed.

  • Mark Lindsay says on

    Thank you, Thom. Huge issue.

    Heroic leadership. The notion that any one leader can push all the buttons, make all the decisions, have all the knowledge and empower all the people that any church or organization needs. I find it one of the greatest fallacies in leadership and leadership studies. In my experience, these leaders exist in a self-made echo chamber that is a but a “highway to the danger zone” (to borrow an old lyric). Expand this to a small team of leaders, and you make a good step, but not quite far enough. Small, tightly-coupled leadership groups also tend to easily create the echo chamber that you speak of. I find these two approaches to leadership rampant in many (most?) churches today.

    Compare that to a Biblical model in which all believers are indwelt and empowered by the same Holy Spirit, all believers are gifted for ministry, maturity comes through empowerment, wisdom is found in an abundance of counselors, leaders are really servants, and on and on. We, as leaders of leaders, are never asked to step into a role that isolates us from those we serve.

    Such a concept is foreign to Scripture, and yet, our schools are full of leadership studies curricula that only focus on the one (important) part that is personal leadership, not on the bigger (just as important) part that is organizational leadership. That is, how do we release each called, gifted, Spirit-empowered believer to exercise that “influential increment” (Katz and Kahn) among other such believers in ways that move the church forward toward Kingdom impact. This is a much harder thing to do than to sit in an office and “push buttons,” but the reward of an activated Body of Christ far exceeds heroic leadership… and offers inherent accountability that avoids the devastating echo chambers you speak of.

  • Echo chambers can also be created/perpetuated when the time, place, agenda, and minutes of leadership meetings are not known. This is seen in churches quite often when no one is exactly sure of what the leadership is doing. Also, leaders should not be protected. Close friends of leaders can influence them to disregard people based on litmus tests. Parents protect leaders by forbidding their children from speaking up or asking questions. This can lead to an uneasy peace which may lead to a blowup.

    • Cynthia Hoag says on

      “Parents protect leaders by forbidding their children from speaking up or asking questions.” The children who are forbidden to ask questions or speak up learn that neither their parents nor church leaders are to be trusted. They are future atheists because the lesson learned is that something hinky is going on in the name of religion. The truth does not need protection, only fragile egos do. No blowup, just a lingering disgust for the church and their parents.

      • I don’t go so far as to say future atheists. Some will still believe in God but dislike the church and organized religion. I learned there was a difference in religious truth and church management. However, most church leaders focus far more on charitable organization management than anything else.