It’s well-known that President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk which read, “The Buck Stops Here.” It was the haberdasher from Missouri’s way to describe a crucial quality of all effective leaders: they shoulder, not shirk, their responsibilities.
Leaders make tough calls for the sake of justice and compassion. They honor principle more than popularity and personal conscience more than political calculation. An inner compass guides them more than external pressure does. They know that blame-shifting and scapegoating undermine their credibility and corrode their character.
They also know that every leader makes mistakes, every person fails, and every individual sins.
Sometimes we have to make decisions without complete information, and our actions are always subject to the law of unintended consequences. When we get it wrong, we need to own-up to our mistakes, learn from them, and, where possible, make new decisions which, where possible, repair any damage we’ve caused.
Other times, despite our hardest work and best intentions, we fail. Success eludes us. Dreams shatter. Even so, what feels like the end doesn’t have to be the end. We can come back from failure, but not if we try to pretend that it isn’t what it is. Failure can be a stern but indispensable teacher. Maybe it will show us that our vision of success was clouded by the wrong kind of ambition or that our dreams were fragile because they didn’t include the flourishing of others. Perhaps it will prompt us to hone our skills. Or, it’s possible that failure tutor us in a finer sense of our limits and free us to seek greater collaboration with friends, partners, and colleagues.
And, we sin. When we do, it’s vital for us to remember that God freely and generously extends grace and mercy to us; but that grace is not cheap and that mercy is not easy. Cheap grace, as Bonhoeffer reminded us, is grace without repentance. We don’t change our behavior in order to receive grace—grace isn’t something we work for—but we do allow grace to reshape our behavior.
In my experience, mercy can be “severe” (a description I borrow from Sheldon Vanauken). It’s not severe in order to be punitive. Since its goal is to heal, mercy is severe in the ways that surgery is wounding or physical therapy is painful or counseling is challenging. Mercy uses hurt for, and transforms it into, our wholeness.
Clearly, then, none of us, including those of us who lead, is flawless.
The hope, however, is that leaders become increasingly trustworthy as we grow through our mistakes, failures, and sins. We learn how to get it right more often as we deal honestly with how we’ve gone wrong. We humbly acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know, so we open ourselves more fully to the perspectives of other people, especially to people at the margins and on the edges. We treat whatever power and influence we have as entrustments, not entitlements, given to us as means to enhance the common good far more than to enrich ourselves.
The ancient Greeks and Romans looked for gravitas in their leaders: a sense of seriousness (not the same as somberness), dependability, dignity, and sound judgment. We want there to be a certain depth and weightiness to them, instead of an alarming shallowness and lightness of being.
Whether we use the term or not, we, too, want there to be appropriate gravitas in the character of those who guide us. They learn it over time, in the honest struggle with their own flaws, and by courageously committing themselves to worthy, even when costly, actions.