Mercy in Leadership - A Blinding flash of clarity

2022-03-18 This post is over 2 years old

Around June last year, I had a blinding moment of clarity and an uncomfortable look in the mirror. And of all things, it came while watching a movie. In Avengers 2, it is pretty clear that the entire plot is caused more or less by Tony Stark’s stubborn pride. And out of his desire, and probably fear-driven desperation to ‘help’. Now to be clear, I think the film is well made, and that the actors did a fantastic job portraying very real characters. So it is the story, and dynamics that it points to that really hit me.

You see, it is Tony’s fault that murder-bots try to take over the world. And he is desperate to fix the mistake that he made. So he tries again. If you watch carefully, you can see the moments when Captain America tries to stop him. He even tries to help Tony see the real impact he is having after Tony failed the first time…

Tony was so desperate for absolution that he ignores Cap’s warning and help. Naturally they are setting up for future films yes, but this reflection drove me to realize something I hadn’t wanted to see.

To be honest, this film makes me angry! Tony wouldn’t just stop! He honestly kept making things worse and worse, as he kept making new bots… Yet… he had to. He couldn’t live with himself unless he tried to make things right, even if that effort might make things worse.

Looking at it from Cap’s perspective, He was trying to lead a team full of capable, brilliant people… Who sometimes ran off on their own and could cause world-ending levels of damage in the process. But for his team, he couldn’t just ask them to stop either. And they couldn’t even if he had asked.

There is a kind of mercy which a leader must be capable of extending to the best performers on their team… even when they mess up. I used to think that hatred of weakness, and thus a strong adherence to discipline would be enough to lead to excellence. But re-watching this movie, I saw the fault in that plan.

To steward the gifts on a team, the leader must accept the people on that team. A leader must accept the faults, and the glories of their team members. Certainly a leader must also help steward their growth and reflection. But that cannot be because they hates the weakness in their subordinates. Instead, it has to be motivated by an ardent desire for their good, even if it means accepting a string of failures because stopping their efforts would be more costly to person behind the work.