The Leadership Trait Nobody Talks About…

Rediscover grace as a part of your leadership approach…and look for it in others’.



What’s a fundamental difference between a professional whose career is summed up as “noble leader” and one whose career can be summarized as “tyrant?”


For those of us who believe in a constrained view of the world…one where actions have consequences and consequences are real things; the concept of grace can be a hard one.

Grace, put simply, is unmerited favor. It’s something for nothing.

Just where exactly, you might ask, does that belong in business?

I have spent my career driving performance on investment returns, growth, cost, and productivity. I’m a consistent proponent of competitive intensity, performance and professionalism. These things are fundamental to success in the for-profit world.

So, isn’t it impossible to build “grace” into a culture of performance? Isn’t “performance” supposed to be a maximum Net Present Value, no-holds-barred, social Darwinist drive for the greatest efficiency possible, TODAY, grace be damned?

In short? No.

The most mature performance cultures build grace into their models of leadership because they also build risk taking into it. The latter cannot be sustained without the former. A performance culture that pillories its unsuccessful risk takers will eventually have no risk takers left. Such is the reality of incentives.

Because we as leaders in our organizations, churches, and communities, have power; we must understand and remember the notion of grace and how it relates to performance and value creation.

We’ve all received the benefit of grace from leadership or fellowship at some point in our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not:

  • Maybe it was that time when you got sick and were able to turn in your term paper late, saving you that last few credits for graduation.
  • Maybe it was the time you flubbed the numbers on the project justification, should have been reprimanded, but were coached instead.
  • Maybe it was the time your husband sat quietly while you bitterly criticized him.
  • Or, when you tapped your car into another in a parking lot and the old guy whose car you hit just smiles and says “no harm, no foul.”
  • Perhaps it was when one of your direct reports at work forgave you–fully–for a stress-laden tirade where your “f-bombs” flowed freely, you threw things, and perhaps kicked a wall or two.
  • Or, when your best friend pretended not to notice when you said something really awful to his girlfriend over a petty issue.
  • Perhaps–and this one hits close to home for me–you once got into the game before you were really good enough to merit it.
  • Finally, it might be the many thousands of instances of grace that reside in your blind spots–the grace extended to you when you didn’t know you needed it extended. That time you talked for half an hour about yourself and your hobbies and everybody listened to you without telling you what a boor you were comes to mind.

Reflecting on instances like these can make you a better leader; and let’s be honest, a better citizen.

Most people keep some sort of reciprocal account in their heads for the moments of grace they have been fortunate to receive. I find that I’m at my most thankful when I reflect on them (and no, not all of those listed above are mine). However, some among us keep a reciprocal account for the opposite of grace–the perceived slights or moment of disobedience we experience from people who know better than to cross us.

That account is what leads to vindictiveness. That account leads to personal pain. It leads to the inability to forge deep relationships because people constantly seek to avoid your glare and blame.

These two accounts are branches of the same roots of rational and emotional realities. Debits and credits of the brain–a commitment to reciprocity–are basically a part of our being communal animals. They lead us down two paths as leaders.

We are graceful, or we are vindictive.

We are the sheepdog, or we are the wolf.

One of us sees the world around us as worth saving and growing. This one sees performance as a prerequisite for success and drives it, but with a code of dignity and grace.

The other harbors the innate contempt that the predator has for the sheep.

In real life, people you know are representative of both personalities. It’s up to you and me to figure out who among us is leading in order to protect, grow, and edify; and who is leading in order to devour.

It’s also up to you and me to establish a code that gives a head nod to grace and therefore to risk taking.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the figurative sheepdogs from the figurative wolves. Both are beautiful animals. Both are also capable of immense, violent action at the moment of provocation. There is no net-present performance advantage to being a wolf–don’t let anyone tell you differently. Still, if you look for visible signs of grace–not favor for people who are “useful” but rather true, unmerited favor…you will know the difference.

A final thought: A common meme in our western business culture is that “there is no loyalty anymore.”

Loyalty is the followership equivalent of leadership grace.

Perhaps followers no longer see enough grace from their leaders to merit loyalty in abundance.

In other words, perhaps you see no loyalty because they see no grace.

Perhaps its time to start talking about grace in leadership again.

Geoff Wilson appreciates the grace he has received, especially for the stress-laden tirade.