Richard J. Mouw: Leadership and bearing pain
All leaders will unavoidably cause pain in the lives of others. But they do not inflict pain without also bearing pain, says the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary.
Termination meetings -- those uncomfortable sessions in which an administrator tells an employee that he or she is being fired -- are primarily shaped by legal considerations these days. The instructions from the HR office are clear: Make sure that all the necessary paperwork is prepared. Get right to the point, saying as little as possible. Don’t talk about how difficult it was to come to the decision.
As a seminary president, I had more than my share of those sessions. Typically, the meetings lasted at most for 10 minutes, given the rules I had to follow. But more than once, I couldn’t sleep the night before because of my own anxiety and dread.
I understand the rationale for the rules and the need to avoid extended explanations. But it always troubled me that in the very moment when the pastoral aspects of leadership were most needed, they were most forbidden by legal considerations.
In thinking about and preparing for those moments, I often reflected upon some advice that David Allan Hubbard, my predecessor in the Fuller presidency, once gave me.
“Leaders do not inflict pain,” he said. “They bear pain.”
Interpreted literally, of course, Hubbard’s advice was simply wrong, I now realize. There is no way to fire an employee without inflicting pain. Arguably, it makes more sense to say that leaders do not inflict pain without also bearing pain.
That would have helped me understand that my sleepless night perhaps compensated at least a little for the pain I would be causing the employee whom I would fire the next day. That person suffered, but so did I.
But on a more profound level, David had it exactly right. Had I kept that employee on the job, the seminary I was leading would have suffered unnecessary pain. In almost every case, the employee in question was a good human being, a child of God with many gifts.
But in each instance, I judged that the person did not have the right set of gifts to do what the institution needed to be done. In order not to inflict pain on the seminary, then, I had to bear the pain of firing an employee, of inflicting pain on another human being.
David’s piece of wisdom may seem strange in the broader culture of leadership today. Most of us are familiar with the TV shows where, with much bravado, a CEO proclaims, “You’re fired!” Or a talent judge shouts disparagingly, “That’s a no!” Or a bachelor declares, “You’re going home!” The people being rejected -- whatever their motives for appearing before the cameras -- slink off with dashed hopes, humiliated before millions of viewers.
We desperately need alternative models of leadership, of people who can demonstrate what it is like to bear the pain of others.
I have no business complaining about bearing other people’s pain. I know that I’ve caused much pain in my lifetime -- both necessary and unnecessary -- enough that even hundreds of sleepless nights and a pond of tears couldn’t begin to compensate.
Without meaning to let myself off the hook, all of us in leadership positions will unavoidably cause pain in the lives of others. The real wisdom in David’s counsel is that we must work hard not to give in to the temptation to inflict unnecessary pain. A good leader cannot be motivated by a desire to get even, or to show someone who is boss. That is obvious.
But we must also work hard not to give in to the temptation to reduce the necessary pain. This is the kind of pain that takes place when we cannot, on the advice of our lawyers, explain and justify to the other why we have made the termination decision that is now causing him or her such pain. In situations where I had to let an employee go, I often could have explained my case to that person or to others who disagreed with my decision in a way that would have made me look better. But the institution had good reasons why I should not explain myself. In such moments, remaining silent is also a form of bearing pain.
It isn’t difficult to see the theological lesson here. There’s a line I once heard -- admittedly, an irreverent one -- that has stuck with me: “God is no sadist. The worst thing you can say about the God of the Bible is that he is a masochist.”
That makes good theological sense. The book of Job takes on the issue of God’s relationship to human pain, but it does not allow us to put aside our worries that God may take some kind of satisfaction in doing whatever he wants to us for his own inscrutable reasons. Yet the incarnation demonstrates that God intended all along to enter into our condition to bear the full burden of human pain. God takes upon himself human flesh, as the Suffering Servant, the Man of Sorrows, who goes to great lengths to become acquainted with our grief.
It is not always easy to know what it means to “be like Jesus” in specific contexts of leadership. But this much seems obvious: God-honoring leadership requires the willingness to bear the pain of others.