Leadership as Idolatry


Organizational culture
charismatic leadership
theology of workplace

How to Cite

Tangen, K. I. (2017). Leadership as Idolatry: The Case of Stalinism and Beyond. Scandinavian Journal for Leadership and Theology, 4. https://doi.org/10.53311/sjlt.v4.24


This study explores how an extended view of idolatry can be used to analyze leadership in organizations. Beginning with the theological anthropology of James K. Smith, it develops a model of idolatry and then moves on to explore the cases of Stalinism and Enron. The ultimate concern promoted by personality cults in these cases, it is not only the leader but also the organization itself and a narrative that give the organization and its leaders a grandiose self-identity. Moreover, the study suggests that organizational cultures and organizational rituals can slide into idolatry, even if this is not fully intended. The key mechanisms here are rituals of charismatic self-seduction and psychological control, forming a totalitarian culture. By combining charismatic leadership theory and critical realism, this study also suggests that idolatry can emerge from below, although individual reflexivity can also resist idolatrous leadership. Finally, when truth is exchanged for grandiose self-images, it leads to violations of human dignity. The study identifies three questions that could help leaders to prevent themselves from slipping into idolatry. It also argues that churches could be resources for organizational leaders in terms of being communities of counter-formation, mutual discernment and missional empowerment



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