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When It’s Time to Stop Forgiving a Leader’s Weakness

All leaders have areas of weakness. Sometimes it’s just the way a person is wired, or perhaps it’s a skill they lack, or sometimes it’s a blind spot. Good leaders work on those weaknesses, and if they can’t be fixed, they build a team that’s able to help in areas where the leader may not be strong. There was a point in my career when I realized that intricate details put me to sleep. Spreadsheets? Forget it. Budgets? They make me ill. Contracts? I’d rather shoot myself than read them. But all those areas are important, so I surrounded myself with people who are good at that stuff, which frees me to focus on my strengths.

However, some leaders refuse to make those changes, and instead, assume everyone will forgive their weak areas. I’m all in when it comes to forgiveness; however, beyond a certain point, it can become abuse.

Right now, sexual harassment is in the news because of the #MeToo movement, and that’s a good thing. However we often forget that there are plenty of other ways a leader can take advantage of his or her team. For instance, I have a friend who works at a small company with a boss who – like me – isn’t a numbers guy. So he constantly makes mistakes with the payroll and his accounting is a nightmare. He asks my friend to forgive him because of the mistakes, but every week, my friend continues to be shorted on his salary.

My friend likes his boss, and doesn’t believe he’s taking advantage of his employees, but the truth is, the boss won’t use a proper accountant, and my friend is now thousands of dollars behind in being paid.

Other leaders humiliate their employees and ask for forgiveness rather than change their behavior. Others refuse to deal with their tempers, so they ask forgiveness after every explosive tirade. Others show up late for everything, drink too much, or take credit for their employee’s work.

Understand that there are times when forgiving people is appropriate, but in the case of serial incidents, the problem is with the leader. If they continue making mistakes or acting inappropriately – for any reason – and refuse to change their behavior or seek proper help, then withholding your forgiveness is the right thing to do.

Never be pressured into thinking it’s your fault because you won’t forgive your boss’s behavior, actions, or mistakes over and over. There comes a time with every leader when they must take responsibility or step down.

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  1. Isn’t the trick then after not forgiving, or giving a pass to a leader also finding away to communicate that without having to seek a new job?

    1. Great question Charmaine. And it’s a tough job, no question. I always advise people to do your best to communicate it in a loving way without being a jerk. It’s also good to try and enlist team members the leader respects to help support your concern – and in the most difficult cases, find peers outside the company he or she respects to help. But if he or she refuses to change after all that, it may be time to look for another job, or move to another department in the organization.

      1. Phil, do you have any tips on the best way to “enlist team members?” Many times they are on-board around the water cooler, but not willing to actually bring their concerns to the leader, or to go above the leader when no change was made even after bringing concerns to that leader time after time. Sometimes the office/company culture has shifted. Doors that had once had open door policies now have invisible nails in them. Is there additional advice you have for that particular issue?

        1. Really good question Dawn. When it comes to a person’s job, they can get nervous, and what they say isn’t always what they do. I can remember standing outside a bosses door with another employee and we both agreed on confronting the boss over a really big problem. But as soon as we walked into his office, my friend folded, and it made me look like a single disgruntled employee. So here’s some advice: Enlist others who have been particularly hurt or frustrated by the leader’s behavior or actions, and second, make sure they are confident enough to risk their job over it. That might be difficult – and it might take some time – but for most people, only until they are pushed to the limit PLUS are OK with the possibility of being fired, will they act.

          1. I agree. Thank you, that is very helpful. Water cooler chatter in our environment is often viewed as gossip, even in this case. Is there a best way to approach it so the leader does not feel ganged up on or gossiped about? We do not currently have a good conflict resolution process, so there is often way too much emotion tied to it. We have some good resources to use as a guideline, but we are still trying to approach that discussion. I apologize for additional questions, but the struggle is real. You don’t pull punches and I hope that never changes. I used to be pretty bold in approaching problems, but it is getting more complicated all the time with this culture shift I’ve mentioned. I appreciate your blog and find it so helpful in many areas of both my job and life.

          2. I feel your pain… 🙂 Perhaps because I’m a people person, I tend to take the leader outside the office and have a personal conversation about the issue. Don’t do lunch, because if he or she doesn’t respond well, you’re stuck. A coffee shop that’s not too busy is a good place. That way the conversation can be as short or long as you want. The key is building a leader’s trust in you so that when you DO confront him or her, they have enough trust in you to listen. That may take a while to build up, but it’s worth it.

  2. Spot on Phil! One of the big challenges, I think, is it that far too often leaders are not very self aware of their weaknesses. And, unfortunately, many employees are fearful or do not know how to have a productive conversation with their bosses about them. In that case both parties suffer from inaction.

  3. Good thoughts Phil! So true in the non-profit/church arena. We’ve all observed when a weakness of the leader, fed by a lack of accountability, turns into a moral failing or financial disaster. Its easier to have that talk before 911 has been called!

  4. This is a timely piece Phil and I’m sure it’s hitting a wide audience. I wished you had not used the ‘f’ word. For me ‘forgiveness’ is a non-negotiable. I’ve received it freely I have to give it freely. But how much grace do I have for the collateral damage from a leaders personal issues is a separate item. I can forgive them but it may be best for everyone concerned that we do not work together. Or, if I feel that God has placed me there I know that there is a reason for what I’m experiencing it just might be preparation for what’s ahead. Either way, I would not see this as a forgiveness issue but one of discerning God’s purpose and the level of grace I have for those circumstances. BTY enjoyed your book The Way Back.

    1. Understood, and I see your point. I used the “f” word largely because I’ve seen so many leaders who take advantage of people simply ask for “forgiveness” over and over rather than fix their problem. And in so many of those cases, the fact that people grant them forgiveness is a big part of why they keep taking advantage. I often think that not being so quick to grant these serial jerks a pass might give them the wake up call they need.

  5. This is so good Phil, and so are the comments listed below. Love the leader who staffs thier weeknesses but doesn’t utilize thier strengths. They choose to do it themselves or tell them how to do what thier strength is in. That’s when remembering its not you, it’s them. Eventually, forgiveness isn’t even relevant to the situation anymore, keeping a good attitude in check is.

    Thanks for posting this.

  6. Love this Phil. I’ve been pretty good about trying to find people to fill in where I am weak but it did backfire on me when the church I was the pastor of wanted to do the “pastor is more of a CEO and run it like a business” mode. i was not geared that way and the associate hired several years earlier was. When one of the elders gave his attention to him, I lost my job. I could not compromise who i was (a shepherd) to be a business man. Not sure I’m explaining this correctly so I hope you get my drift. I’m excited now to see my current youth pastor (and hopefully my successor some day) show strengths where I am not but he also allows me to share my experience with him in areas where he is clueless. He is fairly new to this work; I’ve been at it for 45+. I’m also 30 years older than him so I remind him he is younger than my 2 daughters. 🙂

  7. Good truth here. Only God is infallible; every man has a fallibility within his soul. It’s up to us to decide how long we live with those weaknesses in an employee-employer relationship, particularly when the employer will not admit nor seek the help he needs to correct his behavior.

  8. Forgiveness is not condoning bad behavior, forgiveness is about letting go the hurt and the trouble that I have to endure so that it does not tear me up inside. However forgiveness does not mean I have to accept bad behavior- As a freelance production sound professional, If I work on a your show, I expect to treated like a professional, paid in a timely manner and respected firstly as another human and secondly for my craft. Now if this does not happen, forgiving you does not exempt you from the consequences of your actions. I will chase you up to get paid if the check does not arrive in accordance with the deal memo. If you consistently disrespect me on set then next time you call, I will be unavailable, and I probably wouldn’t be able to supply any recommendations to work in my place. I may even walk if your behavior is abusive.

    If there is incompetence I will, for your own good, make suggestions, or even give you an ultimatum. I was on a show earlier this year that was chaotic. The producer/ director decided for whatever reason (probably to try and save money) that he didn’t need a script supervisor. Well very quickly the project stated falling apart. I basically told the guy- you need a script supervisor and if you don’t get one then people are going to start leaving because they are done with the chaos and to be honest I’m this close to walking myself because I’m done with 15+ hour days, not including my drive to and from set each day, that could easily be avoided, but because you can’t figure out how to match your shots this situation will continue throughout your shoot.

    If you however don’t make moves to change your ways and you continue to treat me like crap, or every time I work for you I have to keep chasing you for my check, or every shoot you don’t find ways to overcome your incompetency by bringing on people to make up for your own shortcomings, I’ll forgive you because I’m not going to bring all that frustration into my personal life and let it stay there. Maybe I’ll bitch about it with my wife for a short while just to get it off my chest, but because I forgive you I’ll move on. If I see you in a bar I’ll be cordial and ask you how your projects are going- heck I’ll even buy you a beer, but I won’t put myself in a position where I could become bitter and angry because of your behavior and if that means I never work for you again then so be it. In fact I’m less likely to forgive your bad behavior if I keep putting myself in a position where your actions consistently frustrate me and fester within me. Better that I forgive and walk away then try to forgive while continually having to deal with problematic situations that you cause.

    Oh and by the way that director I mentioned- He did get himself a script supervisor after I confronted him so it does behoove you to speak up when things are going bad as you may have the power to turn a bad situation into a good one. Just be prepared to follow through if your confrontation falls on deaf ears.

    1. Well said Martin, and thanks for that approach. I used “forgiveness” in the sense that many leaders make these mistakes again and again and pressure people around them for forgiveness. It’s not really YOUR forgiveness, it’s doing it publicly and allowing a serial abuser to continue. Some people don’t have the confidence and relationship you had with that producer, but your strategy is a good one, and thanks for sharing that!

  9. This is so good Phil, and so are the comments listed below. Love the leader who staffs thier weeknesses but doesn’t utilize thier strengths. They choose to do it themselves or tell them how to do what thier strength is in. That’s when remembering its not you, it’s them. Eventually, forgiveness isn’t even relevant to the situation anymore, keeping a good attitude in check is.

    Thanks for posting this.

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