Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How do you follow a leader when you know he/she is making a mistake?

In books on leadership and management, I think there's a conspicuous absence of chapters entitled "I screwed up. I'm sorry," and dealing with the consequences for followers of a leader's mistake.  Many leaders and managers don't seem to join in with Dale Carnegie's admonition "when we are wrong--and that will be surprisingly often...let's admit our mistakes quickly and with enthusiasm."  

Mark Driscoll recently posted an open letter of apology and repentance. (Reddit posted a copy here.) In 2007, he discussed apologies in a sermon in which he gives himself some good advice: 
"First, follow the truth wherever it leads. If it means it leads to “you’re wrong”, then follow it. If it leads to “you’re fired”, then follow it. If it leads to “that’s not what’s best for you, but it’s best for all”, then follow it. If it leads to “you need to apologize”, then follow it. Don’t defend yourself. Don’t always do what is in your best interest. Follow the truth wherever it leads.
Secondly, invite and pursue correction and council. Tell the people in your life, “I’m blind to my own blindness. I’m foolish to my own folly. I need you to confront me. I need you to rebuke me. I need you to speak the truth to me. When I’m acting like a jerk, I need you to say it. I need you to give me council because sometimes I don’t know what to do. I need correction because sometimes I say and do the wrong thing.” And receive it, don’t argue, don’t blame shift, don’t change the topic. Receive it."

Fast forward to 2014 when he's making another apology in the same vein. In 2007, he was fighting fire with fire and someone he respected reached out to him, changed his mind. Sounds like it was similar in recent months, he got criticized for something, stuck to his guns and later decided it was wrong. 

My dilemma arises as a follower. What do you do when a leader is doing or saying something that you think is likely wrong, and reckon there is a high probability that at some point in the future-- years or decades ahead, maybe-- he will change his mind and do it differently? Driscoll writes "I'm foolish to my own folly. I need you to confront me. I need you to rebuke me." But that statement is biased by hindsight. At the time, if you were to rebuke him he'd likely get mad and fire back. For the time being, he's convinced of his correctness.  Therefore, questioning him is generally going to be met with some hostility or accusations of disloyalty. What do you do? How long do you stay on as a follower? 

The submission side of the equation is tough-- you've got to submit to the leadership you think is errant and trust that the leader will eventually see his ways as errant. There are not many books written about that.

Driscoll's recent apology states:
"As I’ve expressed in several sermons, I needed to mature as a leader, and we needed to mature as a church. In the last year or two, I have been deeply convicted by God that my angry-young-prophet days are over, to be replaced by a helpful, Bible-teaching spiritual father."

So, the 2007 experience wasn't enough. I would guess that some people have been shepherded by Driscoll for over a decade, acutely aware of the mistakes he seemed oblivious to or defensive about but they stuck with him. According to the letter, some people still haven't reconciled with Driscoll. That's a shame, forgiveness should be quick-- but how do we reconcile forgiveness and following someone who you know is doing or saying something wrong? 

I ask these questions because in my own life I've seen leaders take stands on particular issues and deflect any questions or criticisms. "This is what I believe and I'm sticking to it." Years later, they change their position on the issue. But I don't often hear an "I'm sorry, I was wrong..." to those who irked his ire by questioning the earlier stance. It is instead a "This is what I believe and I'm sticking to it" all over again. I personally have a hard time being a follower in those situations. 

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