Effective Leaders Demonstrate Civility Through Grace

There is an alarming lack of civility in America that we see daily, simply by following the news. A recent study of 1,126 adults on Civility in America, revealed the following:

  • 84% have personally experienced incivility
  • 59% quit paying attention to politics because of incivility
  • 34% have experienced incivility at work
  • 9 in 10 say that incivility leads to intimidation (89%), harassment (89%), discrimination (88%), and violence (88%)
  • 75% blame politicians, 60% social media and 59% the news media
  • 75% believe that incivility in America has risen to crisis levels

Civility Defined

So what do people mean when they mention civility? Study participants describe it as respecting and honoring people, tolerating them or remaining polite when you don’t feel like it. Mahatma Gandhi said this:

“Civility does not mean the mere outward gentleness of speech cultivated for the occasion, but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.”

What they’re really talking about is expressing grace, which also happens to be an important leadership trait. The kind of grace I’m talking about here often manifests itself in forgiveness and tolerance. By definition it’s unmerited favor, and when leaders extend grace to others, it increases trust and goodwill and deepens relationships. This is true both in corporate America as well as in nonprofit fundraising organizations.

Grace in Action

A clear example of grace is found in a story about two of our country’s most esteemed leaders, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Though they had a lifelong friendship, they had many differences, and for a period they were estranged. However, reconciliation came in their later years, and they wrote 158 correspondences between 1812 and 1826, which are now famous.

Evidence of this leadership trait is found in an incident that occurred in 1823. Several letters that Adams had written earlier in his career were reprinted in the newspaper. Adams had been less than complimentary of Jefferson, calling him a “duplicitous political partisan.” The newspaper obviously tried to stir up trouble, but Jefferson responded with grace and forgiveness by writing the following to Adams,

“Be assured, my dear sir, that I am incapable of receiving the slightest impression from the effort now made to plant thorns on the pillow of age…and to sow tares between friends who have been such for nearly half a century. Beseeching you then not to suffer your mind to be disquieted by this wicked attempt to poison its peace, and praying you to throw it by.”

So relieved was Adams at Jefferson’s graceful words, he insisted that Jefferson’s letter be read aloud at breakfast to his entire family. Jefferson had given a gift of grace to his friend and that gift was motivated by his love and admiration for Adams. Jefferson’s actions depict what good leaders do; they forgive by disassociating actions or mistakes from a person’s value. It reminds me of what Soren Kierkegaard once said:

“Through forgiveness love covers a multitude of sins. Forgiveness takes away that which still cannot be denied as being sin. So love strives in every way to hide the multitude of sins; but forgiveness is the most outstanding way.”

Forgiveness and Grace Embody Love

When leaders forgive they demonstrate value for people and relationships beyond their immediate actions. Essentially leaders extend the gift of grace to people, which tends to break down barriers and deepen relationships. Using Kierkegaard’s description, Jefferson demonstrated not only that he valued Adams, but also that he loved him. Ultimately, the most effective leaders embrace grace and forgiveness and demonstrate a form of love. That doesn’t negate accountability between leaders and followers, but trusting people and extending grace also builds trust and increases the likelihood that accountability will be self-imposed.