top of page

On Having Mercy

Should each of us be forever punished for the worst thing we’ve ever done?

On the leadership team of a company I know, one of the members, a VP of engineering I’ll call Roger, served time in prison two decades earlier for domestic violence.

Upon recently discovering that conviction in Roger’s past, another member of the team, Rita, wants nothing to do with him.

When the company hired Roger 14 years ago, the president, Susan, knew about his past wrongdoing. She believed Roger had shown a commitment to change by seeking professional help, and making restitution to the person he harmed.

Susan believed Roger took responsibility and moved forward. She also believed he could be an important contributor to the company.

She was right. In his current position, Roger has built a strong leadership reputation, and his engineering team consistently outperforms other divisions.

But Rita remains undaunted in her avoidance of Roger. She told her boss: “I don’t respect him and I won’t work with him.”

Impact of a grudge

Like many of life’s challenges, this situation is complicated.

Is Rita’s grudge more a decision or a reaction? What explains her unwillingness to remove her foot from Roger’s neck? Who can say what experiences in her own life she might be projecting, unaware, on this situation?

Whatever the reasons, the ripple effects of Rita’s refusal now pose a bigger threat to the company’s culture than Roger’s long-ago harmful behavior.

Susan is also in a tough spot. She knew she took a risk in hiring Roger. Thankfully, his past bad behavior hasn’t returned, and his performance has been outstanding.

Susan has spoken separately to Rita and Roger about this situation, challenging them to have conversation. She’s encouraged Rita to “work through” her resistance: “I need you and Roger to work together on this team. Ignoring him is not an option.”

It remains to be seen whether Roger and Rita can find a way to collaborate.

“I don’t like that man”

This situation got me thinking about the place of mercy in leadership.

It struck me that Rita is focused on that one black mark on Roger’s record. Would getting to know more about him make a difference? Would getting to know Rita’s point of view be helpful to Roger?

I remembered the quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

In contrast to Lincoln’s plea for increased understanding, many of us, like Rita, are too often blind to the option of granting benefit of the doubt, and also, blind to our blindness.

Perhaps not coming to terms with painful experiences in our own lives ratchets up our reactivity when we least expect it.

Whatever the obstacles, the importance of mercy cannot be easily dismissed. A merciful mindset – the willingness to give second chances and to learn more about the persons who offend us – can reduce the anxiety of blame in a system.

It’s also an exercise in humility, recognizing that anyone can mess up in small and big ways.

As with retribution, our capacity for mercy is built into our DNA. It’s even been identified in non-human mammals.

A wolf named “21”

A case in point:

In the 26 years since wild wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park, one wolf – an alpha male named “21” – became a subject of meticulous observation through telescopes and a satellite tracking collar.

Biologists watched 21’s leadership. They noticed a habit that set him apart from other alpha males.

Despite his fierce family loyalty and legendary strength, whenever 21 would pin down a rival wolf from a neighboring pack, instead of inflicting the customary death bite to the neck, he left the vanquished opponent unharmed.

Apparently, he was able to deliver a clear message without a fatal blow.

This act of mercy galvanized unparalleled respect for 21 among other wolves, including the rivals he defeated and set free.

Rick McIntyre, a prolific Yellowstone wolf observer, called 21 “the toughest male wolf the park ever had.” Tough, yet merciful.

Selective mercy

Like “21,” we are no doubt selective about who receives our mercy.

We tend to sanctify people we respect, and demonize those we disrespect. Yet just as our imagined “saints” are never quite as innocent as we wish them to be, our identified “sinners” are seldom as abhorrent.

Familiarity breeds mercy.

I’m stingier with mercy when I tell myself that the offensive other is “not like me.”

If one of your children committed a crime, would you approach that situation with greater mercy than evaluating a stranger who committed the same crime?

I realize the topic of mercy is controversial, that punishment is often well-deserved, and that the mandate of justice – equally applied – is a marker of a free society.

That said, there is a time when a person’s debt has been paid, when it’s time to let it go and move on. In a free and reasonable society, there has to be a time and place for mercy.


bottom of page