Month February 2016

Month February 2016

Sins of Omission

John Bauer February 19, 2016 blog, News 1 comment
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Theologians distinguish between “sins of commission” and “sins of omission.” Ethicists devise systems for deciding what makes a right act right and a wrong act wrong. Most religious people feel guilt over breaking of the Ten Commandments as opposed to those things they could have done but didn’t. I guess that’s natural. People aren’t generally held accountable for things they fail to do, especially if there is no rule or command that obligates them to do something. For example, driving past the motorist who is broken down on the side of the road and donating to charity are generally believed to be good actions, but nobody gets punished if they choose to withhold such mercy.

At the same time, we know that most people do feel regret over things that they didn’t do in their lives more than they do for overt mistakes. These are often in the form of missed opportunities or failure to spend more time with family or friends. Some sins of omission can cause significant harm, though. For example, parents who withhold love and acceptance from their children can do damage to their children’s long-term psychological health. Failing to study in school can lead to severe career limitations.

I find it interesting that in Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25, the goats were condemned, not for their evil deeds (sins of commission), but for what they failed to do (sins of omission):

(41) Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (42) For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, (43) I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

(44) They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”

(45) He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (NIV)

So what does this have to do with executive leadership and board governance?

Feeding The HungryI have been writing about the responsibility of chief executive officers to cultivate a culture of engagement in their boards of directors. I have even suggested some practical ways in which such engagement can be enhanced. I would further argue that this responsibility of the CEO to “feed and clothe” a positive environment extends to the entire organization.

What I find interesting in most organizations is that you won’t find this critical responsibility listed in the CEO’s job description. In most organizations I am familiar with, the CEO could perform his duties as described in his position description perfectly, and the board could still be highly disconnected and the staff culture remain largely dysfunctional. This may be due in part to the highly subjective nature of interpersonal relations and group dynamics. But it is also because organizations are very reticent about legalizing acts which would most often fall into the affective domain. It is just assumed that an effective CEO is going to be a good person to work for and one who cares about employees, clients, board members, donors, etc., and will do what is necessary to cultivate positive relations. On the flip side, I don’t know of many boards that would fire their CEO for not being loving enough!

Notice, however, that Jesus did not suggest that those on the left violated any kind of commandment such as “Thou shalt feed the hungry.” Nope. The only commandment Jesus ever gave in the realm of human relations was “Love your neighbor as your self.” And therein lies the nub of the matter. Those on the left were not guilty because they withheld food or clothing. They were condemned because they did not show love to their fellow man.

I am writing this primarily to the leaders of mission-driven nonprofit organizations, but the principle is applicable across the entire spectrum of human organizations. If leaders truly believe their role is to serve (be it people, clients, shareholders, board members, investors or whomever) rather than to be served, then there is only one rule to follow: love the people you lead. Examine your heart and test your motives in all your corporate relationships:

  • Do your employees know that you care for them and appreciate their work to the point that you have their interests above your own, or are you perceived as indifferent and more concerned with your status or control?
  • Does your board feel that you “feed, clothe, visit” them so their service on your board is not only professionally enhanced, but their engagement is received by you with gratitude?
  • Does the organization’s culture of service delivery demonstrate love, care and compassion to the people who are supported, or are they viewed as commodities to be managed?
  • Does the community in which you operate associate your organization with care, love, concern, justice and compassion, or are you viewed more as a business or just another employer?
  • If your leadership team is not functioning up to its potential, is it “hungry, naked, sick or in prison” and in need of the support, encouragement, coaching, training and leadership that only you can give?
  • Do you and your organization bring value to the world by enhancing lives, or are you more concerned with monitoring key performance indicators to make sure it is operationally efficient?
  • Where do you spend your time? With people, or on tasks? And what do you really care about? Getting the job done, or helping people fulfill their potential?

I doubt if these acts will be found in a job description. Active engagement in these activities won’t necessarily lead to big pay increases or a positive bottom line. Nor does failing to address them necessarily represent dereliction of duty – however that may be defined. But failing to do these things can cause harm. Your work will be less fulfilling. Your organization will be emptier. Your board and staff will be less engaged. Your quality of services, support by donors, and loyalty of employees will be diminished.

Sins of omission do have negative consequences. In your leadership role, try to be mindful of how you have been shown love by people who care for you and for whom you care, and then try to reflect that love through your leadership. It is, after all, the most fundamental and universal human need.

If you would like to talk more about what this might mean for you and your organization, please give me a call or drop me an email. I’d love to talk more about this important dimension of leadership.

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