Shortly after the COVID-19 lockdown started in Canada, I gave a talk at a staff meeting with two primary thoughts.
The first was that leaders were going into a time of tremendous complexity. We would need to make decisions with limited knowledge of the problem and very little understanding of the unintended consequences of our actions. We would inevitably get some things wrong. We might actually get them seriously wrong.
This led to the second thought. Would each of us—all of us as staff and each of us as citizens—be able to forgive the mistakes that will inevitably be made? Even with right motives, leaders can make dramatic mistakes. Hindsight will show not only that were we sometimes wrong in our response to the crisis but also that others endured resulting harm for seemingly no good end as a result of that response. Some cost-cutting efforts may go too deep, and firms will lose key staff and the future capacity to adapt. Our conversations and imaginations may be stifled by this experience for years to come. Or perhaps the focus on responding to short-term transitional issues will blind our judgment and cause us to overlook the longer-term transformational trends.
My aim in the staff meeting wasn’t to superficially avoid responsibility through a pre-emptive pietistic discussion of forgiveness. But I did sincerely worry that a culture of bitterness and blame would be the consequence of such mistakes.
Which raises the question: What determines whether mistakes are answered by a culture of bitterness or forgiveness?