Nice leaders threaten?

Even nice leaders  need to threaten at times

By Tom Harper

The book of Lamentations deals with the apparent contradiction between the biblical principles of harsh punishment and grace.

When God’s people continually disobeyed him, he simply did what he said he would do, even though “He does not enjoy bringing affliction or suffering on mankind.”

As leaders, how are we to discipline our people without alienating them? This aspect of leadership – holding people accountable for their actions – is unpopular in churches, though that is precisely where it must be consistently executed.

A new view of integrity
The biblical definition of integrity is not just doing the right thing, or even doing what you say you will do. For leaders, it is both rewarding and punishing at the proper times. That is biblical integrity. Much of the Old Testament tells of God’s coupling of blessings and threats based on the choices of his people.

Let’s look closer at God’s discipline/reward process in Lamentations:

  1. He establishes rules
  2. He warns of the consequences for disobedience
  3. He pleads with those who disobey
  4. He disciplines when the rules are broken
  5. He restores relationships through forgiveness and reconciliation

The most overlooked step in today’s organizations is number 3: if you lead, at times you need to plead. Through his prophets, God implored his people to repent. He gave them ample time to turn from their ways to avoid judgment. Though he did not enjoy it, his integrity compelled him to follow through on his threats.

Binding ourselves
One way to enhance our reputations as leaders is to bind ourselves to our threats. This requires taking risks with our follower relationships.

In a Harvard Business School article, “Six Steps for Making Your Threat Credible,” author Deepak Malhotra advises leaders to increase their negotiating power by visibly restricting their ability to retreat. “A public commitment makes it difficult for a negotiator to back down from a threat … There is no better way to make your threat credible than to ensure that you can’t go back on your word.”

Threats are heard louder and clearer when the leader has the guts to address a group head-on, rather than keeping it to one-on-one admonitions. An existing reputation as a threat-keeper reduces the likelihood the leader will have to make good on them.

Of course, we must make realistic threats of punishment – unlike the angry parent who threatens to turn the car around, then has to threaten again when the back-seat squabbling continues. On the other extreme, unreasonable punishment demotivates. What’s the use in trying to please the leader anymore, when he’s left us lying bloody in the dirt?

The power of principle also lends weight to threats. I know a leader who is so fanatical about “the principle of the matter” that he will devote hours of personal time and energy to right a wrong, regardless of the cost.

Is your reputation what you want it to be? Your personal leadership brand is what everyone thinks everyone else thinks about you. In other words, if someone says to a rebellious coworker, “Bill won’t allow that,” different employees may interpret that differently: “Bill is an ethical leader,” “Bill isn’t afraid to lead with conviction,” or “I’m going to stop fighting Bill on this – he has too many allies.”

Effective love/fear
When our people both fear and love us, the stage is set for stellar performance, which leads to job satisfaction and further results. This cycle is fed by the dual-natured leader who isn’t afraid to inflict tough love and appropriate pressure.

A love/hate relationship is the antithesis of God’s perfect love/fear leadership style. In the divine model, a lot of love, mixed with some fear, yields long-term, healthy results. When the Lord disciplines, he grieves. When he punishes, he laments. And when his people obey, he blesses them.

Tom Harper is president of NetWorld Alliance, which publishes, in Louisville, KY.


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