Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is a term used in places like the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, to describe, “a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticized because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.”

The term originates from accounts in Herodotus’ The Histories, and is used also in other classic works like Aristotle’s Politics, and Livy’s History of Rome, Book One. The idea is…if someone begins to have more influence, power or success than others…cut them down to size. It’s an agricultural way of expressing the “crab in a bucket” concept.

A form of TPS exists in many churches. If a leader begins to lead to much out in front, they need to be “reigned in.” They are labeled as an autocrat or viewed as not in submission to who the real leaders are (a most puzzling dilemma). Here I’m not talking about a leader’s failure to acquire the blessing of those he or she works with by communicating in a healthy way or bringing them along in some way. I’m talking about a simple fear of leadership for one of several reasons.

Some churches exhibit Tall Poppy Syndrome because of raw tyrannophobia (the fear of a tyrant). This isn’t altogether bad. However, in my experience, this reason is given to mask the reasons that exist below the line: jealousy and a personal need for control.

One of the best cases of Tall Tulip Syndrome we can see in Scripture is Saul’s attempt to murder David. After David kills Goliath, people begin to view David as a stronger leader. This makes Saul furious–and afraid to the point he begins throwing his spear at David (who he once adored) trying to get an increasingly tall poppy back to size. The Bible says a harmful spirit came upon Saul.

“Saul was afraid of David because the LORD was with him but had departed from Saul. So Saul removed him from his presence and made him a commander of a thousand. And he went out and came in before the people. And David had success in all his undertakings, for the LORD was with him. And when Saul saw that he had great success, he stood in fearful awe of him. But all Israel and Judah loved David, for he went out and came in before them.” 1 Samuel 18:12-16

Below the line, many churches do their best to keep leadership from growing too tall because they are jealous or afraid: afraid of losing personal control or afraid of losing their own role. Whenever we act out of fear, we are usually off-track. Leadership is a gift from God to His people. It isn’t a curse. It isn’t a threat. It’s a blessing. Tyrants are a threat. Leaders are not. The difference between them is as clear as the difference between Saul and David.

When a giant is killed, we should, like the women of Israel, dance and give thanks that God has used a Christian servant in a mighty way. If David hadn’t stepped forward to face Goliath, our Bibles would read quite differently. I for one am glad that biblical leaders are not easily cut down. David managed to survive Saul, Moses Paul kept preaching and Jesus rose again. However:

For a church to prevail, it will be vitally important the church follow God’s leading. That means recognizing leadership and cultivating a culture in which leadership can flourish–rather than being resented or feared. In most churches that complain about lack of leadership the truth in many cases is they are leadership hostile. That is–leadership is feared or resented when identified or expressed. In such churches, their system (ways of emotionally connecting and way of operating) is geared to cut down poppies.

Prior to her inauguration in 1931, Margaret Thatcher told us, “Let your poppies grow tall.” This is good advice for churches as well. If God blesses your church with leadership, we should respond with thanksgiving, and seek to release Christ’s power in the church. That should be our first impulse–not worry or fear, nor a desire to cut the poppy down to size. When we cut down the poppies, we are always led by the lowest common denominator–not by Christ, who we’re told in the Bible gives leaders to churches for the building up of the Body (Ephesians 4:11-14).

May our churches avoid chopping down our poppies. May we instead become greenhouses in which all spiritual gifts can flourish and be used to their maximum capacity for Christ’s glory.

Do you agree that there are leadership hostile churches? How can we recognize them?



Note: the preceding is an excerpt from a previous NewVintageLeadership.com post.