Friday, June 15, 2018

Mea Culpa Leadership

Try this thought experiment with me: in our culture, what are incentives to the admission of culpability, failure, weakness, mistakes? From where I sit, it seems very few benefits accrue to those who apologize or make such admissions, and there are many disincentives. Admitting failure, apologizing for anything, is risky business. Admit a mistake, and people will pile on you.

You've seen this happen, I'm sure. No wonder its a rare occurrence to actually admit guilt or fault.

If you are in a position of leadership with an organization and you consult your lawyers, they'll probably strongly recommend you make no such admissions in writing or otherwise, lest you make yourself vulnerable to a lawsuit.

I assume this is why, in addition to the actual personality issues (pride, vanity, stubbornness), many leaders in our nation (including those at the very top) follow a simple doctrine: Never apologize. 

But there's a big problem with this doctrine. Never apologizing means never changing, never growing, and rarely getting better. It's like that line in Thor: Ragnarok when Thor tricks Loki at his own tricks. He says, "You'll always be the god of mischief, but you could be so much more."

Repentance doesn't guarantee growth, but it is a practice that illustrates maturity and the potential for growth. 

This brings me to Shanna Germain. Shanna is an amazingly creative writer. She makes games and stories with Monte Cook Games, plus novels and a lot more. I started following her on social media  a few years ago when I got into role-playing in the Cypher System, the gaming system published by Monte Cook. I love following her on social media because she is so wise (and added bonus, she wrote a whole role-playing game with dinosaurs). 

Shanna recently posted this, which I share with her permission:

I am sitting with my imperfections today. My failures and flaws. It makes me feel bruised, this self-reflection--and tender. It's always a hard space, but it's a space from which I hope to rise, better and smarter for doing the time and the work... 
One hard thing about getting older is that my failures and flaws are not the simple mistakes they once were. Now they are more complex and ingrained, harder to unweave and understand. Leveling up is complex work.
There's so much truth in this short post, I feel like I need to break it down and exegete it, like Scripture. Maybe because I'm in middle age, probably around the same age as Shanna, this post felt especially close, poignant. I've been sitting with my own imperfections a lot lately, not always knowing what to do with them.

I fail all the time. Sometimes I fail because I'm leading with my strengths, and I get confused in the application. Sometimes I'm just stubbornly clinging to my flaws. They are so complex and ingrained, almost hard-wired into my operating system, I hardly know how to re-write them... I even wonder if I can.

And my failures sometimes have a much larger impact than when I was younger. As a pastor, my failures impact my congregation. As a voice in our community, or here in these social media spaces, my flaws get magnified in so many ways. 

Shanna compares this work to "leveling up," which is language familiar especially to gamers. Gain enough experience, you level up. With each level, you gain extra skills, abilities, powers. Players in a game at higher levels often have to keep track of how their various new skills interact. You might gain a skill at level 4 and forget about it for a while, only remembering at level 10 that you even had the other ability in your skill set.

In middle age, it seems we're all in over our heads, literally. We don't even know what we don't know. The systems in which we are embedded are complex, and part of their complexity is actually created by our own complexity. 

If we're leading really, really well, we're actually creating these challenges, because we're creating in ways that lead out into uncharted waters. Heck, really great creatives don't just lead us into uncharted waters... they actually CREATE the water.

In the midst of all this complexity, all these failures and flaws, it is the peculiar Christian notion (call it a doctrine if you'd like) that you can always apologize.

You can always apologize, because there is always grace. You can always repent, because new life shows up on the other side. Such sitting with our failures and flaws is the beginning of the Christian life, it is the center of the Christian life, and it is always available. It's a better way, even if it is the path less taken.

Imagine if our national leaders were encouraged by our culture, and by their own leveling up, to recognize mistakes, admit their failures and flaws, repent, and turn in new directions. Watching our leaders not do this is maddening, and also sad and pathetic. They look stuck, trapped. I've noticed the same pattern in myself at times. I don't like it.

I mean, it's not just that individual leaders in our nation follow the doctrine of never apologize. It's actually American Doctrine never to admit we made any mistakes. It's ingrained in us from a very early age. Just go back and read the history textbook you were assigned in school. 

One of the more remarkable aspects of Scripture is how different it is from other works of "history." In some ways, the entire Hebrew Scripture is a record of Israel's failures, and God's faithfulness. Similarly, the New Testament is a story of Christ's epic failure, and God's raising him up. And Paul's letters are all about his own weakness, and God's strength in spite of Paul's failures.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to find myself at 71 years old so immature that I can't say sorry, so rigid I can't change, so righteous I have no need of God's. So with Shanna I'm sitting with my imperfections in this blog, and I'm finding such sitting then gets me up off my seat into a life I'd otherwise be afraid to live.

Finally, one caveat: I am not giving anyone the assignment to publicly apologize while in a position of leadership. As I mention at the beginning of this post, I know how risky this can be, from personal experience, and seeing it play out in the lives of others. For right now, I'm sitting with this tension in my own life: between the Christian call to repentance, and the reality that admitting weakness in public settings for leaders can, because of our cultural situation, harm sense of self, compromise the leaders' role, and leave people feeling isolated. I'm not sure how to reconcile the theology with the reality, but I know sitting with the first, and acknowledging the second, are important, and important to hold in tension. 

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