Dysfunctional Leadership

Dysfunctional Leaders: Examples from Antiquity

By Victor C. Gavino

Introduction and thesis

The concept “dysfunctional leadership” covers a wide spectrum of characteristics, behaviours and strategies of individuals in positions of authority, i.e., leaders, that negatively impact their followers both individually and collectively (Roter, 2017). It is a nascent field of research that is gaining attention from academics. It is yet to be defined with precision, its boundaries discerned and clarified, its manifestations manifold.1Dysfunctional leadership has been described and categorized in different ways: narcissistic leadership (de Vries & Miller, 1985); toxic leadership (Lipman‐Blumen, 2005); destructive leadership (Einarsen, Aasland, & Skogstad, 2007; Hogan & Hogan, 2001); dark triad (Paulhus & Williams, 2002). While the literature is replete with examples, essays and studies of dysfunctional leadership in a business context, its constructs also apply to political organizations, nations and their leaders.2See for example the application of the construct “toxic leadership” which is one of the aforementioned manifestations of dysfunctional leadership (footnote 1) to political leadership (Heppell, 2011), specifically in this cited issue of the journal Representation (47:3, 2011), Tony Blair (McAnulla, 2011), George W. Bush (Herbert, 2011), Silvio Berlusconi (Allum, 2011), Thaksin Shinawatra (McCargo, 2011) and Robert Mugabe (Tendi, 2011). Additionally, the presidency of Donald Trump has been scrutinized from the lens of bad leadership. See for example Spector (Spector, 2017).

The belatedness of research notwithstanding, dysfunctional leadership is not a new phenomenon. Roter gives three notable examples spanning the Antiquity to the Middle Ages (Roter, 2017):

Caligula, Roman Emperor (37–41 ad): Caligula led through the use of fear, cruelty and extravagances, and was known for his insatiable lusts. During his rule, he was known for having affairs with his sisters and with his opponents’ wives. He declared himself to be a living god and his horse was treated better than his followers; living in a marble stable, it was named a senator and had 18 servants tending to it…

Genghis Khan (1206–1227): …By 1206, he was the ruler of most of Mongolia and was given the title Genghis Khan, “Ruler of the Universe.” As his military forces moved through the country, they slaughtered or imprisoned those they conquered. He was responsible for killing over 40 million people during his rule. He utilized tyranny, genocide and carnage as part of his military strategy and leadership tactics.

Ivan IV “The Terrible” (1533–1584): …He believed in killing people and that proving their guilt was pointless. Some believed that Ivan took great pleasure in killing others and coming up with new methods of torture, and would use techniques such as burning people at the stake, boiling people and impaling them on sticks.

Biblical text and related documents also contain accounts of kings and leaders that would be seen as examples of dysfunctional leadership as conceptualized and understood today. The aim of this essay is to locate such personages in the texts of Jeremiah, 2 Baruch, Josephus, and the Pauline corpus, whether such are identified directly or by allusion. This essay will first establish current comprehension of dysfunctional leadership. It will then look retrospectively at the Judahite monarchy, the crisis of leadership among the Jews in the cluster of years around 70 CE, and lastly, the ministry of Paul in Philippi. The expected result is that Biblical text and related documents in the Greco-Roman period will prove themselves to be as widely relevant today as they must have been when they first circulated.

Dysfunctional leadership as currently conceptualized

It remains difficult to define in a precise manner the concept of “dysfunctional leadership” as per the usual requirements of the academy. The pertinent traits and characteristics can be context specific, complex, multi-disciplinary, overlapping and inter-related. The catalogue of its manifestations is expanding as relevant case studies are reported in the literature. These include circumstances that may have not been identified as symptomatic of a dysfunctional leadership were it not for the ongoing theorization of the phenomenon. In a practical sense, Kellerman in a simplistic sweeping and unhelpful statement that signals the stage at which we understand dysfunctional leadership, simply reiterates that there are two types of leaders: the good and the bad (Kellerman, 2004).

Nevertheless, given the aforementioned complexities, certain documented behaviours do coalesce to yield a general portrait of what “bad” leadership looks like. The identifying characteristics summarized in the following paragraphs are condensed from Roter (Roter, 2017).

In general, dysfunctional leadership can be described by its consequences: it harms the followers; it leaves the followers worse off than they were previous to the advent of the dysfunctional leader. Dysfunctional leaders display a lack of integrity. Coupled with an insatiable ambition are these individuals’ arrogance and reckless disregard for the consequences of one’s actions. Notwithstanding the wreckage they cause in their followers’ lives, their primary goal is to advance personal interests via a personal agenda by wielding abusive power that causes psychological and/or physical harm on their subordinates. What confuses the issue, ironically, is the current conception of “good” or “positive” leadership as an individual capable of inspiring and motivating followers to pursue a guiding and clearly articulated vision to its completion. In reality, dysfunctional leaders may possibly meet the criteria of “good” or “positive” leadership, e.g., Adolf Hitler, the ultimate example. Hitler is infamous without question for his global negative impact in the twentieth-century; Undeniably, to achieve what he did, he had to have the ability to inspire, mobilize and lead his followers however nefarious were the goals. He was a charismatic and mesmerizing speaker at least in his early days as political leader (Kellerman, 2004).

Dysfunctional leadership has been classified into different categories based on behaviours and methods of achieving goals.3See footnote 1. Enumerated below are traits that are potentially relevant to the aims of this essay which is to find correlations between current concepts and characteristics discerned from Biblical and associated text from antiquity:

  • Toxic leadership (Heppell, 2011; Lipman‐Blumen, 2005) will seek to create illusions that will enhance personal power. It is charismatic when there is need for this trait to manipulate, isolate and ostracize followers. It is inwardly focused or self-serving, violating the interests of the organization or the collective. It also promotes incompetence and corruption.
  • Destructive leadership (Einarsen et al., 2007) has inward and outward components. Inwardly it manifests as moodiness, lack of integrity, irritability and arrogance. Outwardly it takes the form of physical abuse directed against followers. Destructive leadership works against the goals the collective. It is characterized by a need for power veiled in a charismatic personality. It is driven by an ideology of hate. Bad decisions are formulated based on bad information. Destructive leaders are unable to persuade, motivate, inspire or negotiate with their followers. They cannot handle conflict, are inconsistent in behaviour, and display favouritism. They are intransigent, not open to input nor outside opinion. They do not protect subordinates creating or inciting to despair, misery, bullying and falsehood.
  • Abusive leadership (Roter, 2017) employs a combination of negatives, verbal and physical, to wield influence on followers. These negatives manifest in several ways: public criticism or ridicule; condescension; intimidation; rudeness; epithets. Abusive leaders display volatile behaviour including tantrums.
  • Tyrannical leaders (Adorno, 1950) are characterized by a god-complex, believing that they are unique and above the law. They reject any input, advice or criticism, take all credit and disavow all blame. They are intransigent, have emotional outbursts, are arrogant/boastful and distrustful. They wield power by micro-managing, by coercion and by public criticism of followers. Decision-making is volatile and unpredictable.
  • Unethical leadership (Chandler, 2009) occurs when the leader acts in manner that is inconsistent with “agreed upon standards of character, decency, and integrity.” The unethical leader is motivated by personal self-interest, power and greed, and will pursue these goals irrespective of the rightness or wrongness of such.

The last category of dysfunctional leadership is a constellation of three personality types: Narcissism (Paulhus & Williams, 2002); Psychopathy (Paulhus & Williams, 2002); and Machiavellianism (Stead & Fekken, 2014). These three characteristics together are collectively known as “The Dark Triad” (Roter, 2017). Narcissists have feelings of grandiosity, dominance and superiority. Leaders with psychopathy traits display compulsive behaviour, low empathy, low anxiety, and thrill-seeking. Machiavellianism is driven to goal attainment irrespective of method or path.

The list of categories of dysfunctional leadership above is but a brief overview of some of the current ideas in this burgeoning research topic. Table 1 is a condensed list of the traits and characteristics that are associated with each category. The tabular data is incomplete, and yet it is already evident that the categories overlap with respect to their characteristics. Thus, precise categorization is difficult to impossible. Nevertheless, Table 1 (next section) will be used as a reference point linking current ideas on dysfunctional leadership to examples of dysfunctional behaviours described or alluded to in Biblical text and associated documents.

Table 1

Jeremiah and the Judahite monarchy of his time

Tushima noted the connectedness of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, concluding as with certain other scholars, that the latter is the intended conclusion to Deuteronomistic history (Tushima & Jos, 2012). Thus, Tushima asserted that it is productive to explore through the lens of Israel’s early monarchy and subsequent Judahite kings, the intertextuality between the two books. The scholarship produced from this approach is useful to the aims of this essay, that is, the “mis en évidence” of the dysfunctional character of the monarchic line of Israel and then to Judah subsequent to the scission.

The ideal king prescribed for Israel is described in Deut 17:14-20 as follows:4All Biblical text is from the NRSV, anglicised, unless noted.

(14) When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me’, (15) you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose. One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community. (16) Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You must never return that way again.’ (17) And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. (18) When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. (19) It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, (20) neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

The prohibitions and prescriptions in this passage are:

  • The king is to be first chosen by YHWH and then acclaimed by the people.
  • The king is not to be foreign to Israel.
  • The king must not seek to acquire many horses, many wives, and much wealth.
  • The king must have a copy of the Law to himself and always with him, to be read to him by the Levitical priests every day for the rest of his life.
  • The king must obey the entire Law and statutes. He must not exalt himself above anyone in the community, a primus inter pares (Müller, 2016).

These prohibitions and prescriptions were intended to differentiate Israel’s monarchs from the kings of the Near East during that era. Tushima (Tushima & Jos, 2012) noted that the kings of the Near East typically pursued military strength and political alliances, represented by many horses and many wives, respectively. Further, the accumulation of wealth by Near Eastern kings was accomplished through exploitation of their subjects, e.g., taxation, conquests, tributes. Deut 17:14-20 was the standard to which the kings and leaders of Israel must abide, refraining from executing what their neighbour Near Eastern kings would do, thus distinguishing themselves as a peculiar people.

Theologically, the prohibition against many horses, i.e., military strength, was to give reason to the Israelites to attribute their war victories to YHWH and not to their own prowess.5See Deut 20:1; Deut 31:1-6; Judg 7:2; 2 Chron 32:1-8. The prohibition against many wives was meant to protect them from political alliances that would obliterate Israel’s distinctiveness, i.e., its singular devotion to YHWH.6Deut 7:3-4; Jos 23:12-13; Judg 3;6-7; 1 Kings 11:1-4. The third prohibition is a matter of justice: the accumulation of wealth was in those times7It is also true today in many sectors internationally. accomplished through exploitation, injustice and oppression, that which Israelites were forbidden to engage in.8See Deut 16:19; Deut 24:14-15; Exod 23:6; Amos 2:7; Amos 4:1; Amos 5:11; Jer 5:26; Jer 6:6; Jer 7:6; Micah 2:2

Jeremiah is a tale of the subversion of the YHWH kingship model by the Judahite kings. However, the subversion had begun earlier, before the scission. The first two kings, Saul and David, were both chosen by God as per Samuel the prophet, and then acclaimed by the people. Solomon was arguably chosen by God to succeed David,9See 1 Chron 22:10 but began to accumulate horses and chariots,10See 2 Chron 1:14-17; 1 Kings 10:26. made political alliances through marriage,11See 1 Kings 3:1; 2 Chron 8:11. had many women,12See 1 Kings 11: 1-11. conscripted forced labour among the Israelites13See 1 Kings 5:13. and sought actively to accumulate wealth.14See 1 Kings 9:26-28; 1 Kings 10:14-22. Thus, began the subversion of the kingship model. After David and Solomon, the monarchic line of Judah had no textual attestation that any of them were chosen by God, that is, except for Josiah.15Josiah’s kingship was announced by prophetic utterance a century before he came to be, demonstrating that he was God-chosen. See 1 Kings 13:2. Hosea’s prophetic utterance equates the violation of kingship standards to idolatry:

Hosea 1:4
They made kings, but not through me; they set up princes, but without my knowledge. With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction.

By the time of Jeremiah, the conclusion of Deuteronomic history as per Tushima (Tushima & Jos, 2012) which is the violation of the kingship standards had reached its peak.

Wessels’ analysis of Jer 5:1-9 (Wessels, 2015) as with Tushima (Tushima & Jos, 2012) also yields results that are useful to the aims of this essay. The passage in question is:

(1) Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look around and take note! Search its squares and see if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth — so that I may pardon Jerusalem. (2) Although they say, ‘As the Lord lives’, yet they swear falsely. (3) O Lord, do your eyes not look for truth? You have struck them, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to turn back.
(4) Then I said, ‘These are only the poor, they have no sense; for they do not know the way of the Lord, the law of their God. (5) Let me go to the rich and speak to them; surely they know the way of the Lord, the law of their God.’ But they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst the bonds.
(6) Therefore a lion from the forest shall kill them, a wolf from the desert shall destroy them. A leopard is watching against their cities; everyone who goes out of them shall be torn in pieces — because their transgressions are many, their apostasies are great.
(7) How can I pardon you? Your children have forsaken me, and have sworn by those who are no gods. When I fed them to the full, they committed adultery and trooped to the houses of prostitutes. (8) They were well-fed lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbour’s wife. (9) Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord; and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?

Initially, God asks an unidentified group to search for individuals, even just one, who acted justly and who was a truth-seeker. Verses 2 and 3 state that the searchers didn’t find anyone with the sought-for qualities, i.e., the people practiced injustice and falsehood. Worse than this, the people they encountered felt no remorse, they refused counsel or correction, and they displayed intransigence in their evil intentions. The passage takes a turn in verse 4: the prophet turns to the rich (NRSV), the leaders (NIV), or the great men (NKJ, NASB, RSV) with the stated expectation that they must know the law of God, in contrast to the initial group, the poor, who must be ignorant of the way of YHWH. Behold, this group, expected to be knowledgeable, were themselves law-breakers. They had wilfully rejected the Law. What follows is an enumeration of the evil that both rich and poor, leaders and followers, the great and the ordinary, have wrought. Their characteristics (the governing class) using the list of traits/characteristics in Table 1 are: self-serving; promotes corruption and incompetence; lacks integrity (unethical); arrogant; intransigent; does not accept input; incites falsehood among followers; and, dishonest/deceptive. Of the leadership types posted, the characteristics of the governing class in the Jer 5 passage match five traits of the destructive and five traits of the abusive. Proportion-wise, the ensemble of traits matches 5 out of 16 destructive traits and 5 out of 7 abusive traits. It appears that the governing class is described by at least two models of dysfunctional leadership, destructive and abusive, but more the latter than the former. This is no doubt a naive application of current theory, but at the same time it opens a door to further analysis of ancient dysfunctional leadership through the lens of today’s scholarship.

After Josiah, the four Judahite kings in the time of Jeremiah were in succession: Jehoahaz; Jehoiakim; Jehoiachin; and, Zedekiah. Scripture text relevant to each king in 2 Kings and 2 Chron consistently declare that all did evil as did their predecessors. Of the four, Jehoiakim stood out as more evil than the others.16See 2 Chron 36:20-26. This king would not listen to prophetic utterance from Jeremiah delivered through Baruch. He was intransigent. He burned the scroll on which were written Jeremiah’s message, and this in spite of being urged not to do so. He was arrogant, extravagant, ruthless and vengeful.17See Jer 22:13-23; Jer 24:20-23. Lastly, he was hostile to both Jeremiah and Baruch, the messengers of the word of God. In today’s terms, Jehoiakim, in addition to dysfunctional traits he inherited from his predecessors, displayed the following characteristics: self-serving (greed); irritable; arrogant; physically abusive; driven by hate; intransigent; does not accept input; god-complex and above the law. Based on the list in Table 1, these traits coalesce in the destructive and tyrannical types of dysfunctional leadership. This would be in addition to the type of dysfunctional leadership inherited from his predecessors. Zedekiah also stands out in his own right. He vacillated in his moves despite seeking and receiving counsel from Jeremiah. He lacked courage to oppose the views of the members of his court even if he had different ideas. Zedekiah was controlled by fear. From Table 1, his characteristics would include: moody; physically abusive (to Jeremiah); bad decision-making; unable to persuade, motivate, inspire, negotiate with followers; inconsistent behaviour; cannot handle conflict. This set of traits places him in the destructive type of leadership.

In sum, the accounts of the evil of the four Judahite kings in the time of Jeremiah as described or alluded to in Biblical text can be codified in terms of similar to is currently known concerning dysfunctional leadership. This should generate a greater appreciation for the relevance of ancient Hebrew text to today’s concerns with respect to governing authorities and their behaviours.


The years leading up to and immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE was on many levels cataclysmic for the Jewish world centred in Jerusalem. A critically inescapable aspect in that period was a crisis in leadership or lack of it, explored in detail by Sheinfeld (Sheinfeld, 2015) who traces the problem to Roman colonisation and the imposition of Roman concepts of society and culture.

In the Roman world, social stratification was vertical and rigid (Stewart, 2010). The population was grossly segmented into two classes: the minority elites and everyone else. The elites owned most of the land, controlled most of the food supply, possessed most of the wealth and wielded authority over the armies and city governments. In glaring contrast, the majority non-elites were peasants, artisans, slaves and the unemployable or those unable to work. Since the elites controlled the flow of goods, the majority non-elites had to have a way to obtain the necessities of life. This took the form of patronage, an asymmetric system (Neyrey, 2005) for the exchange of goods and services between non-equals, between the elite and the non-elites. The patrons from the ranks of the elites looked after the welfare of their beneficiaries or clients, also known as retainers. For their part, the retainers were expected to cater to their patrons’ relentless pursuit of public recognition, as well as the preservation and defense of familial honour.

It should not be surprising that Rome would replicate its societal structure on her colonies, for example, Philippi, described to have been the most Roman of all (Hellerman, 2003; Oakes, 2001; Tellbe, 1994). As for Judea under the Romans, Sheinfeld (Sheinfeld, 2015) notes that “at the end of the Herodian dynasty and following the Roman census, Rome established a new ruling class over the Judean populace…”18Page 48 in (Sheinfeld, 2015). In other words, Rome attempted to establish a patrician class in the region, in an obvious attempt to impose her binary societal class structure on the people of Judea. This artificially imposed aristocracy would have been composed of the wealthy landowners of the region, again an overt attempt on the part of the colonizers at replicating in a colony the societal norm that was operative in Rome. Drawing from various sources, Sheinfeld notes that this imposed aristocracy or patrician class would have been seen as aberrant by the Jewish populace who did not necessarily equate wealth with leadership.19Note that this is view is not unanimous. Maeir and Shai (Maeir & Shai, 2016) who contend that a patronage system that resembled the Roman societal system existed and was of central importance during the Judahite kingdom. An aristocratic class, the elites, seemed to have been important players in the leadership during this era. If so, this would cohere with the “rich” the “great” or the “big” class of elites in Jeremiah 5:1-9 (see section on Jeremiah, p14 in this essay). Additionally, the enigmatic “people of the land” in Deuteronomistic history appeared to have at times some political clout, e.g., the acclamation of Josiah in 2 Kings 21:24, 23:30, although other texts deny that they were elites of the land (e.g., 2 Kings 24:14, but note 2 Kings 25:19-21).

The artificially-imposed aristocracy would have been a source of societal tension that contributed to the phenomenon of banditry in the years preceding the destruction of the Second Temple (Horsley, 1981). Josephus described one such bandit, one Hezekiah, leader of a band of robbers active in border locations inside Syria in the time of Herod (6 CE):20Josephus, A.J., 14.9,2 (Whiston); See also the same account in Josephus, B.J., 1.10,5 (Whiston).

…committed Galilee to Herod, his next son, who was then a very young man, for he was but fifteen years of age (14) But that youth of his was no impediment to him; but as he was a youth of great mind, he presently met with an opportunity of signalizing his courage; for finding that there was one Hezekiah, a captain of a band of robbers, who overran the neighboring parts of Syria with a great troop of them, he seized him and slew him, as well as a great number of the other robbers that were with him; for which action he was greatly beloved by the Syrians; for when they were very desirous to have their country freed from this nest of robbers, he purged it of them.

There was a widening gap between the wealthy elite and the poor many of whom had been dispossessed of land and became subject to exploitation, e.g., the rise of a labourer class tasked with the construction of and improvements to the Second Temple. When they completed their paid labours, the ruling class had to find ways to keep the needy under control by generating more employment.21Josephus, A.J., 20.9,7 (Whiston). This indicates that the ruling class needed to pacify the labour class. Not only was there animosity between the poor majority and the rich, there was also a type of intense class warfare between the former and the priestly class. Josephus described the friction thus:22Josephus, A.J. 20.8,8 (Whiston).

About this time king Agrippa gave the high priesthood to Ismael, who was the son of Fabi. And now arose a sedition between the high priests and the principal men of the multitude of Jerusalem; each of which got them a company of the boldest sort of men, and of those that loved innovations about them, and became leaders to them; and when they struggled together, they did it by casting reproachful words against one another, and by throwing stones also. And there was nobody to reprove them; but these disorders were done after a licentious manner in the city, as if it had no government over it. And such was the impudence and boldness that had seized on the high priests, that they had the hardiness to send their servants into the threshing-floors, to take away those tithes that were due to the priests, insomuch that it so fell out that the poorest sort of the priests died for want. To this degree did the violence of the seditious prevail over all right and justice.

Albinus the procurator (62-64 CE) deserves particular mention for his abuse of power, which Horsley considered to have further incited banditry.23See Horsley (Horsley, 1981) p 419. Josephus described the situation thus:24Josephus, B.J., 2.14,1 (Whiston). See also Josephus, A.J., 2.9,5 (Whiston).

But then Albinus, who succeeded Festus, did not execute his office as the other had done; nor was there any sort of wickedness that could be named but he had a hand in it. Accordingly, he did not only, in his political capacity, steal and plunder every one’s substance, nor did he only burden the whole nation with taxes, but he permitted the relations of such as were in prison for robbery, and had been laid there, either by the senate of every city, or by the former procurators, to redeem them for money; and no body remained in the prisons as a malefactor but he who gave him nothing. At this time it was that the enterprises of the seditious at Jerusalem were very formidable; the principal men among them purchasing leave of Albinus to go on with their seditious practices; while that part of the people who delighted in disturbances joined themselves to such as had fellowship with Albinus; and every one of these wicked wretches were encompassed with his own band of robbers, while he himself, like an arch-robber, or a tyrant, made a figure among his company, and abused his authority over those about him, in order to plunder those that lived quietly.

The widening gap between the landed wealthy elite and the majority came to a head with the burning and obliteration of debt records and the murder of high-ranking authorities and high priests. Josephus portrays this incident as a strategy on the part of the Sicarii25Sicarii were knife-wielding brigand-type bands to recruit support from the poor elite, the prelude to the Jewish revolt in 66 CE:26Josephus, B.J., 2.17,6 (Whiston).

Now the next day was the festival of Xylophory; upon which the custom was for every one to bring wood for the altar (that there might never be a want of fuel for that fire which was unquenchable and always burning). Upon that day they excluded the opposite party from the observation of this part of religion. And when they had joined to themselves many of the Sicarii, who crowded in among the weaker people, (that was the name for such robbers as had under their bosoms swords called Sicae,) they grew bolder, and carried their undertaking further; insomuch that the king’s soldiers were overpowered by their multitude and boldness; and so they gave way, and were driven out of the upper city by force. The others then set fire to the house of Ananias the high priest, and to the palaces of Agrippa and Bernice; after which they carried the fire to the place where the archives were reposited, and made haste to burn the contracts belonging to their creditors, and thereby to dissolve their obligations for paying their debts; and this was done in order to gain the multitude of those who had been debtors, and that they might persuade the poorer sort to join in their insurrection with safety against the more wealthy; so the keepers of the records fled away, and the rest set fire to them. And when they had thus burnt down the nerves of the city, they fell upon their enemies; at which time some of the men of power, and of the high priests, went into the vaults under ground, and concealed themselves, while others fled with the king’s soldiers to the upper palace, and shut the gates immediately; among whom were Ananias the high priest, and the ambassadors that had been sent to Agrippa. And now the seditious were contented with the victory they had gotten, and the buildings they had burnt down, and proceeded no further.

Josephus wrote many more examples that illustrate the chaos in the leadership in first-century Judea pre-70 CE. The dysfunction was such that the poor people turned to the bands of bandits for justice as they couldn’t avail of any from the official leadership nor did they have confidence in neither the Roman authorities, the Judean landed elite, nor the priestly class. This was the case, as described by Josephus, when the Judeans appealed to a brigand leader named Eleazar for revenge against the Samaritans who had killed certain Galileans who were on the way to a festival:27Josephus, A.J. 20.6,1 (Whiston). See also Josephus, B.J., 2.12, 4 (Whiston).

And when their principal men endeavored to pacify them, and promised to endeavor to persuade Cureanus to avenge those that were killed, they would not hearken to them, but took their weapons, and entreated the assistance of Eleazar, the son of Dineus, a robber, who had many years made his abode in the mountains, with which assistance they plundered many villages of the Samaritan

Clearly, the leadership in Judea as a Roman colony and as depicted by Josephus was in a state of disarray. The landed Judean elite seemed unable to exercise any significant degree of authority. Instead, the ruled class, the majority poor, so disliked the ruling aristocratic class that they turned to local bandits for relief from oppression. The priestly class was also dysfunctional in their leadership, overwhelmed by a heightened sense of entitlement. Lastly, the Roman authorities appeared to be clueless as to how to exert authority and impose order on the Judean populace. Examples of ruthlessness and physical violence abound; however, today’s reader must refrain from evaluating violence and brutality in antiquity opposite current sensibilities.

In sum, the traits of dysfunctional leadership (Table 1) that are prominent descriptors of this period in Judean history for the various competing leadership systems are: strategizes to enhance power; strategies to enhance power; manipulative charisma; self-serving; promotes corruption and incompetence; lacks integrity; arrogant; entitlement; physically abusive; driven by hate; unable to persuade, motivate, inspire, negotiate with followers; incites despair, misery, bullying, falsehood among followers; uses times of crisis to gain followers; amoral. These traits coalesce into destructive and tyrannical leadership types with a touch of negative-type charismatic traits on the part of the brigands.

2 Baruch

This section draws from the results of the doctoral work of Sheinfeld (Sheinfeld, 2015). By way of a close reading of the narratives of the pseudepigraphic apocalypses 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, Sheinfeld explored the leadership systems that existed in the decades between 72 and 132 CE. Of note is the probable purpose of the creation of pseudepigraphy: it is intended to imbue a degree of authority to an opus by appropriating or assuming the credentials of a historical figure with recognized and accepted credibility from the point of view of the readership. In the case of 2 Baruch, the text was written post 70 CE in the guise of Jeremiah’s secretary who was active in the years leading up to the destruction of the First Temple in 587-586 BCE.

A major challenge that manifested in the time period immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple was a crisis in leadership. This problem is addressed in 2 Baruch, the text appropriating credibility under the name of the historical Baruch who lived in the sixth-century BCE. Sheinfeld contends that the choice of Baruch as the historical and authoritative leader figure rather than the more stellar and revered personages such as Jeremiah and Moses gave the writer more flexibility in shaping the narrative to achieve its putative purpose: a discourse on what an ideal leadership should look like given the dearth or decline of leadership at the time. Thus, the pseudepigraphic text should yield insights into how leadership was envisioned in the last half of the first-century CE, in a liminal manner at the very least.

The historical backdrop in the pertinent era is given in the section “Josephus.”28See section on Josephus, this essay. Sheinfeld notes that the disarray in leadership structures pre-70 CE continued post 70 CE.29See Sheinfeld (Sheinfeld, 2015), p 46ff. As well, overt leadership contracted or diminished as an aftermath of the Jewish revolt in 66-70 CE. The leadership that remained or were at least latent belonged to the class of ordinary priests, warrior leaders, learned leaders and messianic leaders.30Ibid. A prime example of leadership post 70 CE is Bar Kosiba (aka Bar Kochba).31The Bar Kosiba leadership, while interesting from the point of view of dysfunctional leadership traits, is outside the scope of this essay. Bar Kosiba is absent in 2 Baruch.

In keeping with the thrust of this essay, i.e., dysfunctional leadership, the pertinent section of 2 Baruch is the vision of the cloud with black and white waters in chapter 53.

(1) And when I had said these things I fell asleep there, and I saw a vision, and lo! a cloud was ascending from a very great sea, and I kept gazing upon it) and lo! it was full of waters white and black, and there were many colors in those self-same waters, and as it were the likeness of great lightning was seen at its summit. (2) And I saw the cloud passing swiftly in quick courses, and it covered all the earth. (3) And it came to pass after these things that that cloud began to pour upon the earth the waters that were in it. (4) And I saw that there was not one and the same like­ness in the waters which descended from it. (5) For in the first beginning they were black and many (Or a time, and afterwards I saw that the waters became bright, but they were not many, and after these things again I saw black (waters), and after these things again bright, and again black and again bright. (6) Now this was done twelve times, but the black were always more numerous than the bright. (7) And it came to pass at the end of the cloud, that lo! it rained black waters, and they were darker than had been all those waters that were before, and fire was mingled with them, and where those waters descended, they wrought devastation and destruction. (8) And after these things I saw how that lightning which I had seen on the summit of the cloud, seized hold of it and hurled it to the earth. (9) Now that lightning shone exceedingly, so as to illuminate the whole earth, and it healed those regions where the last waters had descended and wrought devastation. (10) And it took hold of the whole earth, and had dominion over it. (11) And I saw after these things, and lo! twelve rivers were ascending from the sea, and they began to surround that lightning and to become subject to it. (12) And by reason of my fear I awoke.

In chapters 55 to 74 the angel Ramael came to Baruch with the interpretation of the vision. In tabular form Sheinfeld presented the one-to-one correspondence between black or white waters and historical phases of Israelite/Judahite leadership beginning from Adam to the rebuilding of the Second Temple.32See Sheinfeld (Sheinfeld, 2015), p159.

For the purposes of this essay, dark water periods correspond to eras of dysfunctional leadership as imagined by the writer. These are: Adam; Egypt; period of the Judges; Jeroboam and the kings of Israel; Manasseh. The last two dark water periods are events from the perspective of 2 Baruch’s pseudepigraphic timeline: the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem/destruction of the First Temple, and the eschaton/rebuilding of the Second Temple. For the purposes of this essay, and since 2 Baruch is pseudepigraphic, the dark periods of chapter 55 combined will be considered as a composite of a dysfunctional leader. This is in contrast to the texts from Jeremiah and Josephus which do claim a degree of historicity, and therefore merit a “partitioned” approach. Proceeding thus:

  • Adam. Understood through a patriarchal framework, Adam failed to protect Eve from the deception of the serpent, nor to refuse to participate in the disobedience. Adam was portrayed as silent as to the whole incident.33Gen 3:1-7.
  • Egypt. The Egyptian monarchy was oppressive and exploitive, subjecting the Israelites forced labour or slavery. Second, infanticide was instituted as a means of population control. Third, the monarchy was not open to counsel displaying intransigence. Fourth, it was pragmatic and amoral, placing the interests of the royalty ahead of human life, freedom and dignity.34Exod 1:8-22; 5:1-20; 10:14-11:10; 14:1-9
  • The era of Judges: In this book the repeated sentence “Israel had no king; the people did what was right in their own eyes” is emblematic of a dysfunctional leadership. Chisolm noted that after the first three judges, namely Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar, the quality of Israel’s leaders began to decline (Chisolm, 1994). Barak was not as courageous as he was expected to be;35Judg 4. Gideon was not as trusting of God and made unwise choices with tragic consequences;36Judg 6-9. Jephthah was rash with vows again with tragic consequences;37Judg 10-12. Samson was impulsive, a thrill-seeker and promiscuous.38Judg 13-16 The last episodes in Judges, the Levite and his concubine, is easily the most horrific of accounts in the Old Testament with respect to the physical abuse of women.39Judg 19-21.
  • Jeroboam and the kings of Israel: From the very inception of the Northern Kingdom, the kings of Israel steered their followers away from YHWH and into religions of the region. There was no stable dynastic line in contrast that established in Judah, the line of David. Dynastic shifts in the Northern Kingdom were violent and murderous.
  • Manasseh: Succeeding his father Hezekiah, Manasseh returned foreign cultic practice to Judah, persecuted the prophets and instituted child sacrifice even on his own children.402 Kings 21:1-18.

The dysfunctional leadership traits revealed in the dark water eras are, in the sequence of presentation:

  • Adam: lacks integrity; bad decision-making based on bad information; unable to persuade, motivate, inspire, negotiate with followers.
  • Egypt: strategizes to enhance power; self-serving; arrogant; entitlement; physically abusive; driven by hate; intransigent; does not accept input; incites despair, misery, bullying, falsehood among followers; public ridicule of followers; verbally abusive; amoral; pragmatic.
  • Judges: self-serving (Samson); moody (Samson); physically abusive (Jephthah, the Levite); bad decision-making (Gideon; Samson; Jephthah); impulsive (Samson).
  • Jeroboam and kings of Israel: strategizes to enhance power; manipulative charisma; self-serving; lacks integrity; arrogant; physically abusive; dishonest/deceptive.
  • Manasseh: physically abusive; god-complex, above the law.

The approach taken is to construct a composite dysfunctional leader based on the traits of Biblical characters identified with the dark periods of Baruch’s vision. The cluster of traits identified cluster around the destructive, abusive and tyrannical dysfunctional leader types. It appears that 2 Baruch’s intent was to cover all possible manifestations of what is considered bad leadership. If so, this would furnish a heightened contrast to Baruch as an ideal leader. This aspect is beyond the scope of this essay.


It is to be expected that a nascent movement would undergo leadership issues as it evolves and matures. This was certainly true of the first-century communities of Jesus followers. The Pauline corpus and the pastoral letters are replete with overt accounts as well as allusions of conflict at the leadership level. This conflict has been framed as a type of Hegelian dialectic, Pauline versus Petrine orientations. This perspective has influenced the apprehension of much of the dynamic in Paul’s missionary efforts as portrayed in the relevant passages in Acts, and in the letters to the Corinthians, Galatians and Philippians.

The principal dispute among the leaders was one of identity: Must a Jesus follower also be a Jewish proselyte? Consensus interpretation since the church fathers has held that Paul advocated for freedom, that is, a Gentile may become a Jesus follower without obligation to follow Jewish praxis, regardless of the Jewish origins/foundation of the Jesus cult. Consensus interpretation has held that the Jerusalem group was not willing to permit complete freedom to non-Jewish Jesus followers. Instead, they insisted on certain practices that must be maintained, those that are definitional of Jewishness, e.g., circumcision. The stance of freedom is labeled Pauline, the latter, Petrine. From these flows the understanding that Paul was in a constant battle to assert his authority and impose his theology over the nascent Jesus movement. This approach categorizes Paul’s opponents as those who insist that all Jesus followers retain Jewish praxis, at least its perceived essentials in the case of Gentile converts. This group among the Jesus-devotees is usually labeled “Judaizer.”41The term “judaizers” technically applies to non-Jewish Christians who seek to adopt a Jewish way of life (Cohen, 2002). Strictly speaking, a “judaizer” is a proselyte. See Nanos, footnote #3, p450 (Nanos, 2009). The appellation has taken on a wider meaning to include Jewish Christian missionaries who attempted to impose Jewish tradition and way of life on Gentile Christians, e.g., dietary laws and circumcision. See Tellbe, pp 99-100 and footnote 13 (Tellbe, 1994).

While Judaizers contra Paul have traditionally been perceived as negative elements, this essay will look at potential dysfunction in Paul as a leader. A starting point would be the feminist reading of the overt military/citizenship imagery in the letter to the Philippians.

The history of Philippi is outlined in several commentaries (Fee, 1995; Hawthorne, 1983; O’Brien, 1991; Thielman, 1995; Witherington, 2011; Zerbe, 2009). In 42 BCE in the environs of Philippi, Octavian and Mark Antony in alliance defeated the Roman Republican forces of Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. In 31 BCE, Octavian (later, Augustus) defeated Mark Antony at the battle of Actium. These two historically significant battles were important factors in the shaping the “Roman-ness” Philippian culture: Veterans from these two wars were settled in Philippi.

It is reasonable to suppose that benefits awarded to war veterans and their families as well as the possession of Roman citizenship would have created a privileged class as opposed to all the other inhabitants of Philippi. This class heterogeneity along lines of social and civic status, wealth, land ownership, and other characteristics associated with Roman citizenship would have been highly pertinent in the reception of Paul’s epistle. For example, if the target audience were the privileged class, then military and citizenship imagery would have facilitated the transmission of the message of the letter. However, if Paul had wanted to reach the disadvantaged class of non-citizens and the colonized first inhabitants, there could have been at least two possible consequences: 1) they might have resented the military and citizenship imagery as representing the colonizing forces and therefore communication would have been hindered; or, 2) the allure and value of Roman citizenship would have been so coveted that it serves in 1.27 as a type of “bait” that is revealed in 3.20 as a more valuable and more elevated “citizenship in heaven.” It goes without saying that analysis of the reception becomes even more complex if the target audience were a mixed group that spanned the spectrum of the privileged and under-privileged, the dominant and the subordinate, the colonizers and the colonized.

Analyzing the text of Philippians from a feminist perspective, Marchal (Marchal, 2005, 2006) offers another scenario where Paul structured the rhetoric from the framework of the dominant/subordinate class structure, taking on the role of the dominant authority instructing the subordinate class to follow and imitate him.

Marchal gives a comprehensive review of the majority of scholarship that takes the view that the military/citizenship figures of speech in Philippians would have been favourably received by Paul’s target audience. He begins his analysis by raising critical questions concerning the presuppositions that undergird the current majority opinion on military/citizenship imagery. First, he points out that allusions to military tactics such as is found in 1.27-30 would also be associated with images of bloody violence, as that is what armies do. He wonders whether a colonized people, the subordinate class, would actually react with some form of kinship with the colonizing force that subjugated them, perhaps in not so peaceful ways. More importantly, he asks whether the community of Jesus-followers in Philippi exhorted to live peacefully with one another would actually respond positively to suggestions of violence in the text. Second, if Paul’s intended audience included war veterans and their descendants, Marchal questions whether this sector of the population would have positively and unreservedly received allusions to Roman military culture. Is it possible, he asks, that the veterans and their families would have had divided loyalties? For example, those from the defeated army of Mark Antony might have had a different reaction to Paul’s military imagery compared to veterans from Octavian’s troops. Third, the settlement of veterans was not always idyllic. In the era of the citizen-army of the Republic, veterans of foreign wars were settled back in Italy. Later on, particularly at the ascendancy of the triumvirate, veterans began to be settled in the colonies, e.g., Philippi. This would have incited some form of discontent at having been settled in Italy. Lastly, settling of war veterans in the colonies would have necessarily meant displacement of original inhabitants (Hellerman, 2003). This would have created social tensions and class distinctions.

In addition to Marchal’s questions concerning the presupposition of a receptive Philippian audience based mainly on a positive but potentially unrealistic analysis of the settling of war veterans in Philippi, he wonders how Philippian women might have reacted to military imagery and its violence. According to his view, it is highly likely that the Philippian women would have been the lowest of the subordinate class. As argument, he cites for example that women are usually the victims of violence of the conquering army, e.g., sexual assault. Additionally, he questions the relevancy to a female audience of military imagery that was patently masculine at the time. Marchal posits that there were likely to have been no elites in Paul’s Philippian community, that most if not all belonged to the lower class in agreement with Zerbe (Zerbe, 2009). The latter if correct would further reinforce the view that military/citizenship imagery, presumably attractive to the upper class, would have had the opposite effect on the Philippian Christian community.

Given all of the above, Marchal posits that Paul’s use of military/citizenship figures of speech went in step with his objective, which was to establish his authority and demand obedience and imitation on the part of his target audience as the subordinate class. In other words, in Marchal’s reading, Paul’s letter to the Philippians was an intentional attempt (author’s italics) to establish an authoritative or dominant/subordinate relationship, rather than appealing to a presumed affinity for things military on the part of his target audience. The military/citizenship imagery was intentional, but it was meant to build up Paul as the divinely-appointed model to emulate and to follow, rather than merely to facilitate transmission of meaning. Thus, Marchal reads 1.7, 1.30, 2.2-5, 2.17, 2.18 and 4.2 of Philippians as Paul exhorting his target audience to act like him.

If Marchal’s thesis is correct, he would classify Paul’s leadership as “toxic” with characteristics identified in Table 1 as follows: strategies to enhance power; manipulative charisma; self-serving; lacks integrity; entitlement; pragmatic. These traits tend to the toxic leadership type.

Marchal’s feminist analysis of Paul’s leadership can be disputed in that he has based his thesis via appeal, not to the text of Philippians, but to the exclusionary, elitist, male-dominated and non-mutual culture of friendship in the Greek and Greco-Roman world.42Marchal (2006) pp 35-50. However, the standard words for friendship (e.g., φιλία and its cognates) do not appear in the text of the letter to the Philippians. Instead, Witherington notes the use of highly emotive personal family language, addressing his recipients with the fraternal word “ἀδελφός” and not in the usual φίλος or φιλία.43Witherington III, pp. 1-2, 18. Philippians also has Paul addressing his readers as ἀγαπητός in three locations.44Philippians 2:12 and twice in 4:1 Interestingly, ἀγαπητός does not occur in the letter to the Galatians the text of which is decidedly adversarial and polemic. This negates somewhat Marchal’s contention that the imagery of friendship in Philippians follows that of the Greek and Greco-Roman culture. For that matter, the usual friendship words φίλος or φιλία are not found in any of the undisputed letters of Paul. Further, the presence of language associated with personal affairs (1.12, 1.27, 2.19, 2.20 and 2.23) and the fact that the most frequent word group in the letter involves nouns and verbs of joy45Witherington III, pp 1-2. would not be consistent with an adversarial relationship, i.e., Paul versus his Philippian readers, as Marchal proposes in his reading. Finally, the preponderance of cooperation language signified by the prefix “syn-” does not cohere with dominant authoritative language demanding obedience and/or imitation, but instead is more in line with the language of “appeal” and “encouragement.”

Keown’s contention must be mentioned that Paul was generally pleased with the church in Philippi.46Keown, p 58. He notes that Paul expresses thankfulness for the participation of the Philippians in the gospel. Second, Paul’s prayer for the Philippians to “overflow more and more…” (NRSV) in love suggests a building up of what was already there, i.e., it was already a loving church. Third, the text in 2:12 shows that the Philippian church had no fundamental problem of obedience to Paul, negating Marchal’s contention that Paul had to establish and impose his authority over a recalcitrant community. Fourth, in several locations in the text, Paul expressed joy over the Philippians.47Philippians 1:4, 1:7, 1:18, 2:17, 4:1, 4:10. Lastly, Paul expects to receive from Timothy good news concerning the community48Philippians 2:19. Conversely, Keown also notes that the Philippian church was kind to Paul. First, they sent through Epaphroditus that which was necessary for Paul’s needs. Second, Paul assured the Philippians that his imprisonment has not hindered his mission (1.12-14) and that he expects to be released soon (1.19). This implies that the Philippians had been concerned for Paul.

With respect to the attitude of the Philippians towards Paul, Fowl49Fowl, pp 59-60. notes that the church was kind to Paul. First, they sent through Epaphroditus that which was necessary for Paul’s needs. Second, Paul assured the Philippians that his imprisonment has not hindered his mission and that he expects to be released soon. This implies that the Philippians had been concerned for Paul.

Thus, Marchal’s persuasive feminist analysis notwithstanding, based on the above, the thesis that the letter to the Philippians is an adversarial authority-imposing letter is less than convincing.

Conclusion and future directions

This essay is about mapping current concepts of dysfunctional leadership with accounts of leadership systems in biblical, pseudepigraphic and historical text. Specifically, traits and characteristics of dysfunctional leaders were grouped according to dysfunctional leadership type. An attempt was made to discern these traits in the texts studied, and then to map these traits to the various dysfunctional leadership types. This remains a naïve approach, admittedly. However, it may spur researchers to look more closely at the relevance of ancient accounts of leaders to current times. The results do indicate that when context specific elements are filtered out, dysfunctional characteristics are essentially identical between that described in ancient text compared to current knowledge and conceptualizations of such traits.

There appears to be heightened interest in principles of leadership in religious contexts and seminaries.  This essay demonstrates potential for productive scholarship in examining the nature of leadership in religious settings through the lens of principles developed in the business world.

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