Have you ever experienced a ‘conflict of interest’?

In my early 40’s I held eight different roles/positions in my organization, at the same time. Some were focused in the region of South Asia where I lived, and some were international in scope. I took them on in good faith, with a desire to serve and aware that some clearly overlapped. But I also had a wife active in leadership with her own roles (one was a co-leadership with her) and we had two young girls. It was too much! It contributed to a sense by my mid-40’s of being close to burnout. Fortunately, or I wouldn’t be writing this today, some things came into better alignment in my inner life, and I let go of virtually all of the roles in the next few years.

This may seem crazy to many readers, having that many roles at the same time. In the past in the organization I serve with there was an encouragement to carry multiple responsibilities as part of the challenge to pioneer and create. (but not that many!) This was also often modeled so there was perhaps an unconscious (or conscious) pressure to conform to a particular pattern of leadership. But there are potential dangers and pitfalls of having one person in several roles. I became more aware of the impact on others of my having multiple roles one day in Pune, India, when a close friend and colleague came to me. He said very lovingly but directly, ‘Steve, I love having you as my leader, but sometimes it is very frustrating! Whatever ministry I’m involved in, if I go ‘up’ the chart, your name is there!” It is one thing to see how having different roles impacts us personally, but what about the people around us also?

Having multiple roles can create a ‘conflict of interest’ for a leader or organization. A definition of ‘conflict of interest’ is ‘a situation in which the concerns or aims of two different parties are incompatible’. It also can be ‘a situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity.‘ These situations can include times when our personal relations or interests, like friendships or family or financial, bring potential or actual compromise to our judgements or decisions.

In much of the professional world, there are legal standards and penalties to protect leaders and those they lead from these kinds of conflicts. But I don’t see as clear an understanding in the Church and mission world. There are times in these kinds of situations when a leader with a conflict of interest may need to recuse themself. This is an important word and the concept behind it, not perhaps well known in some circles. It means to ‘remove ourself as a participant for the purpose of avoiding a conflict of interest.’ Many problematic situations could be helped by the leader at times stepping aside for a period, then resuming a role perhaps later.

I learned personally about the principle of recusing at that period of having multiple roles. There was a conflict situation between leaders I was ‘over’, and one of them had ‘appealed’ a decision they perceived as being against them. The appeal went ‘up’ the chart to international level and guess who was there. Me. I also was still serving on the local leadership team that the appealed against leaders were on. And they were my close friends! Can you see the problem? I did my best to try and choose fairly for the aggrieved person, and helped make sure there was a team to hear his appeal from beyond our ministry location. (which he ended up ‘winning’ eventually.) But I see now that I should have ‘recused’ myself from being involved at all in this conflict. I had too many roles, too many friendships, too many interests.

Recusal can be difficult for us, especially if we struggle with control issues as a leader or have fear that we can not be involved in a process. And how many of us as leaders are completely free of fear or control or approval issues? I’ve come a long way I think since my 40’s in some of these areas, but still have a long way to go in my early 60’s!! I have gone through situations since the one above, and what happened then and what I learned about ‘conflict of interests’ and recusal has helped me greatly. It is part of having wisdom in leadership.

I want to list a few important areas where ‘conflict of interests’ can happen. This is a vital and complex area, and I am only barely touching the surface in this post. But I have seen this as a problem too many times in leadership settings. I raise these issues not as ‘absolutes’, but as things to be aware of in your life and leadership. Sometimes with ‘conflict of interest’ issues it is not only the actuality of what could happen, but the perception and potential of danger or harm that we need to be aware of. Here are a few issues, I’m sure you could think of others:

  • As I started with, be careful of having too many roles or positions that could create a power structure, however unknowingly, that results in ‘all roads lead to you’.
  • Be aware of the blessing but danger of having close personal friends on your leadership teams or boards. It is important and good to have friends always, but also there is a need for awareness of whether we are making leadership decisions out of favoring that friend, or worried that we will lose their favor. This can especially be for friends that have money, or for those of us who have to raise personal support, friends that support us financially. Are we making decisions as a leader out of fear of losing that support?
  • Be aware of the same for family members. Be careful of packing a board or leadership team with relatives. I knew one board of a mission training base that had the leader’s wife, mother in law, sister, brother in law and close personal friends on it. See anything wrong with that when it comes time to make tough decisions? There is an important but kind of ugly word, nepotism. One definition is ‘the practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs.’ This can be especially murky when it involves money, or making decisions that favor a family member in their career or influence. Of course I am not writing an absolute to never have our family members work with us in the same ministry or church. One of our own daughters is in the same mission as us, she says to others she has gone into the ‘family business’! But we do need to be more careful when they serve with us in the same location or even the same leadership team. I am not saying that is wrong, just that we need to be aware of the possible nepotism or conflict of interest that could occur.
  • Giving advice or getting some benefit when you have an undisclosed ‘vested interest’ in the same issue, company, project. That is why we need to always practice ‘full disclosure’ of interests we have in a situation, especially financially.

There are other areas we could write about. Here are a few. But they are big and often not talked about or even overlooked. You probably have other experiences or situations. For me, this whole post and area falls under the category of ‘wisdom in leadership’. We all have a mixture of motives in our humanity. It is not that we are to be crippled or paralyzed from leading due to the potential of this mixture. But we do need to be self-aware of our own hearts and motives. To me, growing self-awareness is the most important attribute in the life of a leader. This self-awareness includes the web and circle of relationships we are in, and how they affect our decisions and interest.

So much to learn!!! And we have a lifetime fortunately to keep learning! We can start today by asking forgiveness where we have hurt others in the area of ‘conflict of interests’ or when we did not recuse ourself and caused harm.

And have greater awareness for the next time.

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