Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

Bishop Stephen Hale - 22 March 2021

We’re living in a moment in history when this maxim is ever before us. In leadership, all of us will face moments when we will be damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Just think of every world leader at present. All of them have had to make unenviable decisions where the consequences have been monumental. In most cases, the choice to save lives has overridden the choice to save livelihoods (at least in an immediate sense). You could argue they had no choice, but at the same time, it must have been weighty and overwhelming. In doing what they believed to be right they have caused great harm. If they had done nothing, then the harm would have been even greater.

For most of us, the situations we’re involved in aren’t nearly as huge and overwhelming. Nevertheless, they will be difficult and challenging. In my role as a bishop, I often felt like I was thrust into what I called ‘lose, lose scenarios’. There was the decision to be made and you knew that in making it there wouldn’t be a lot of joy for you in doing it. Fortunately, not all situations are like this and there are many decisions that lead to really positive outcomes. At the same time, it is hard to ignore the reality that we will sometimes confront troubling scenarios. Just think of any professional standards situation and you’ll know it will be painful and at the end of the day, there will be a lot of angst. This will still be the case if you have handled it as well as you possibly can (and let’s face it, that can be very hard to do).

It is often said that leadership is costly. Making difficult decisions is part of that. And in that mix will be the occasional situation when you know that you have no choice. You’ll be upholding a Biblical principle or disciplining someone for crossing a line or exercising fiscal prudence. I once had someone accuse me of being like Pontius Pilate in offering silver coins to Judas (I’ll spare you the details!). Damned if you do and damned if you don’t situations are ones where you know that you have to make a tough call and it won’t win you a lot of fans. Yet the consequences of doing nothing could be far worse. Many churches/organisations have seemingly bizarre situations that no one has been prepared to do anything about. All of us are wired differently so how these tough calls impact you will vary from person to person. I’ve certainly had many sleepless nights when I’ve been in the midst of one of these.

As a general rule, it is important to not rush into these sort of decisions (unless there are legal requirements or it’s an emergency). They should be as a consequence of much prayer and consideration. Where appropriate it should be done with the support of your governing body Chair and generally but not always the full Board. It should be done having weighed the cost. If it is in the acute category I’m talking about, then it should be done in full expectation that you won’t necessarily get a lot of pats on the back afterwards. In fact, don’t be surprised if you get severely criticised. If it is an employment situation it is highly likely a number of people will be very upset and angry.

The encouraging aspect of our current situation is that people respect leaders who are willing to make principled decisions even if it is tough and costly. In fact, it is generally seen as being far more impressive than the business as usual political grind we’re all familiar with. This demonstrates that these tough calls are part of the mix of being a leader who has integrity and is respected.

Stephen Hale
Chair, Arrow Leadership: International Development