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Don’t be weighed down by the sins of office

17 December 2021

Many leaders are remorseful over decisions taken during the pandemic. Eve Poole suggests how to get back on track

MANY of us will never forget the stop-start nature of those early days of the pandemic. Confined at home, poised over a keyboard, we had moments when decisions were needed thick and fast; then there were those slow periods in between, when we all waited for the next announcement. The waiting was particularly frustrating when others were depending on us to act. It was hard to hold back; so, many leaders, keen to seize the initiative, pressed on with big decisions anyway. Some of these decisions came off. Some did not.

When I wrote my book Leadersmithing (Comment, 3 March 2017), I talked about this as a general phenomenon. Given the need for timely decisions, but the permanence of ambiguity and change, the odds are not great that a leader will escape error during their tenure. What I did not foresee was that the pandemic would make this a lived experience simultaneously for every leader everywhere in the world.

By my reckoning, this means that we are now at serious risk of a new pandemic aftershock: a generation of leaders racked with guilt and feelings of remorse that must be metabolised, if they are ever to revert to psychologically healthy leadership again.

ENTER Anthony Bash, with his kairos book Remorse (Books, 24 September). As Stephen Cherry notes in the review, Bash’s brilliant observation is that remorse does not have a “verb” form. But repentance does, so Bash argues that it is only when remorse provokes repentance that it has the chance to transmute into a positive form in the interpersonal realm.

We have been working together on how we might help leaders through this transition, and Bash has encapsulated the minimum process as four key steps: Owning Up, Being Straightforward, Learning from Mistakes, and Making Amends; each must take place for metabolisation to occur. This is because we are so collectively used to hollow apologies, professionally spun by PR consultants, that we do not believe in candour until it issues in concrete and visible action. And active reparation realigns the repentant leader with God, allowing them to get back on track — the literal “turning around” implied in the word metanoia.

Bash’s book reminds us that, as Christians, we should be expert at this. Now should be our moment to help with this healing of the nations. But I imagine that many of us are feeling guilty, too, or at least somehow tainted. We may not personally have made the decisions on closing church buildings or the administration of holy communion, but we all got the feedback. Again, it is helpful to parse these complex feelings: they may all inspire guilt, but some were our fault and some were not.

For me, there is a scale, which gets increasingly more personal. First, there is Regret, which is when we feel sorry about sins committed or omitted, whether or not they were our fault. Many regrets about the pandemic are about things over which we had no control and no moral agency; so, while we might want to help make things right, there is really very little for us to feel guilty about.

Next, Ruefulness: the feeling that you could have done something differently. This is worse, because we know we made a choice which may, in retrospect, have been the wrong one, whether or not that could possibly have been clear at the time.

Then there is Remorse, that gut-wrenching feeling of culpability when we feel that we did, in fact, err and stray, deliberately or otherwise, and we made a mistake that was our fault and that hurt people. This is where we really must engage with Bash’s four steps if we are to return to health.

Finally, there is Chagrin, a rather petulant sibling that often sets leaders off, because it concerns being made to look foolish in public. But it is a snare, because it is about ego, not about righting the wrongs done to other people. If you are beset by chagrin, the best remedy is to give yourself a stern talking to about humility.

THERE will be people in your congregations this Christmas who are feeling devastated by the sins of office. They need your help to move on. But we will all need to remove the logs from our own eyes before we can attend to their splinters.

So, please, forgive yourself. We were all trying our very best. It was an extraordinarily difficult season in which there was no real clarity or agreement about the best way ahead. We all made honest mistakes. And Christmas reminds us that God sent Jesus for exactly this. He loves you and will never let you go.

Dr Eve Poole was the Third Church Estates Commissioner from 2018 to 2021.
Leadersmithing: Revealing the trade secrets of leadership was published by Bloomsbury (2017).

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