You don't have to go far to see this leadership pitfall play out.
The pitfall of subtle undermining is a trap that many leaders fall into. Those who aspire to be Godly leaders must recognize when this rears its head and do everything possible to weed it out.
A fascinating account of the results of subtle undermining are found in the story of David and Absalom.
The relationship between David and his son Absalom was a tenuous one. When we pick up the story in 2 Samuel 15 Absalom has just returned to Jerusalem after he fled when he killed his brother Amnon.
David allows him back into the kingdom, but it is a strained relationship at best. The writer tells us that when Absalom returns "he got himself a chariot and horses and fifty men to run before him" (2 Samuel 15:1). This was the first sign that something sinful was happening in Absalom's heart. By doing this, Absalom was setting himself up to appear as though he was an authority -- a "somebody." Often this is where undermining starts. When we are insecure in the role or position we find ourselves in there is a temptation to think of ourselves as being higher than we are. This can manifest in all sorts of ways. Absalom maneuvered in such a way as to make himself look prominent and great in the kingdom.
Absalom does not stop here. His undermining continues. Starting in verse 2 the author tells us that, "...Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the way of the gate. And when any man had a dispute to come before the king for judgment, Absalom would call to him and say, 'From what city are you?' And when he said, 'Your servant is of such and such a tribe in Israel,' Absalom would say to him, 'See, your claims are good and right, but there is no man designated by the king to hear you.' Then Absalom would say, 'Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice'" (2 Samuel 15:2-4).
The author is quite clear. Absalom is communicating to the people that the king is inept, not fulfilling his duty, and being unfair to the people. He is highlighting this and following up by telling them that if he was in charge it would be different. This is clear and outright undermining. And it works! The author tells us that "Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel" (2 Samuel 15:6). In other words, his undermining of King David actually won him the attention and the allegiance of the Israelites.
This is the danger of undermining - it can give you the desired results. The problem is, the results of undermining are never God-honoring. And the results gained from undermining will never go well with the leader.
To summarize the end of this story quickly, Absalom does gain the hearts of many in Israel and makes an attempt at a coup against David. It works at first, but not long after, Absalom is killed and the rightful king, David, returns to the throne.
This story of Absalom and David should serve as a stark warning of the dangers of undermining. The questions that we need to wrestle with are, how do we recognize undermining when it happens around us, and how can we make sure that we avoid participating in it ourselves.
Undermining is like carrying a knife behind your back. This knife is wielded with demeaning conversation or by asking questions with ulterior motives. Keep in mind that all of this happens behind the leaders back.
If you want to lead with integrity you will not tolerate this form of subtle undermining. It is a deadly poison that trickles slowly into the organizational bloodstream and wreaks havoc.
Listen for the phrase, "If I was in charge..." These words (or words with the same sentiment) are typically the start of what could quickly become an undermining conversation. You would do well to avoid these kinds of conversations.
The best defense against undermining is a commitment to humility and a steadfast trust in God.
Humility should be sought by all leaders. I believe that humility is not something that can be generated within oneself. Humility is grown over time as a person submits to God and allows the Holy Spirit to work inside of them. Humility guards us against haughtiness, selfish ambition, and pride.
Steadfast trust in God is what keeps us from trying to take matters into our own hands. Steadfast trusts allows us to remember that nothing is outside of the purpose of God and that he sees all. With this in mind, we are free to "entrust [our] souls to a faithful Creator" (1 Peter 4:19).
In the end, subtle undermining finds its root in selfish ambition and pride. This must be rooted out of every leader who wants to honor God. Selfish ambition will never bring a favorable result. In fact, James warns of this, "For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice" (James 3:16).
May you and I determine that we will lead with humility for the glory of God and through the strength of the Holy Spirit.
May you and I run from conversations where subtle undermining is found, and may we never be the ones from which those conversations originate.