Scott Benhase: Guilty leaders

Our culture resolves the universal problem of being human by avoiding guilt.

A guilty leader is a good leader.

A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests as much. The authors wrote that “guilt proneness is a critical characteristic of leaders,” and explained their findings by postulating that a sense of responsibility for others and to others explains why effective leaders are more guilt-prone than less effective leaders.

It makes sense to me. If we see ourselves as “mistake free” or “unburdened about being wrong” or incapable of recognizing our complicity when “things fall apart,” then we are not going to be very effective leaders, especially in the church.

A crucial part of being a faithful, effective church leader means that we will not only have empathy for others when they fail, but we will also have a real sense of responsibility, and yes, guilt, when we ourselves fail. The former lets those we lead know we have solidarity with them from our own experience and the latter keeps us from having, as blessed Paul the Apostle wrote, “a higher opinion of ourselves than we ought.”

And yet, we live and move in the midst of a culture that sees little that is positive in guilt. Our culture appears to resolve the universal problem of being human by avoiding any guilt. Guilt seems to be such a terrible thing to so many people. When was the last time we heard a public figure while in office say, “Hey, I'm guilty, I should not have had sex with an intern half my age. It was just plain wrong!” Or, “I never should have allowed the Oil Lobby to write environmental legislation. I’m guilty of an obvious conflict of interest.” These leaders all could learn from King Manesseh of Judah. (Look up his story in 2 Chronicles 33 and read his prayer in Canticle 14 in the Book of Common Prayer.)

What usually happens is just the opposite. The leaders either insist that they have no fault at all, or they speak of wrongs committed in the passive voice, as in “mistakes were made,” so the actor of the wrong is separated from deed itself. The gimmick allows no one to assume responsibility for anything. A society without guilt for wrong-doing (and accepting responsibility for them) is a society that is spiritually stunted. As a reference for this conjecture, follow local and national election campaigns this fall.

I’m aware that there are people who suffer inappropriately from guilt. In those situations, their guilt is disordered. They are ready to admit to crimes and misdemeanors they did not even commit. So yes, guilt can be paralyzing for some people. But that is a small percentage. The rest of our culture seems bent on becoming sociopathic in its aversion to guilt and responsibility.

That’s why it is all the more important for church leaders to have a healthy, spiritually-grounded appreciation for, and personal acceptance of, our own faults and failures and the resulting guilt that comes from such an acknowledgement. Being truthful will surely leave us vulnerable and open to attack, give those opposed to our leadership fuel to criticize us, and, among the spiritually immature, leave them convinced we are less than we should be (that should not be a newsflash to any Christian).

So be it. The alternative is worse. It means buying into the sociopathology of our culture.

Scott Benhase is the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia.