A few weeks ago I wrote, on the Leadership Wednesday thread, that leaders need to have the courage of their convictions. Being ‘blown and tossed by the wind’ is not an admirable quality in anyone, and in a leader it creates discontent and anarchy among followers.
But what happens when your conviction is wrong? What if, when presented with compelling evidence or argument, you realise that there might in fact be a better way?
Danny Webster, writing in the EA’s Friday Night Theology a couple of weeks ago, suggested that sometimes “backing down might be the first step to moving forward.”
He uses the example of Terry Jones, the pastor of a church in Florida, who had planned to use the anniversary of 9/11 as ‘International Burn a Koran Day’. Terry had convictions. He believed that God had given him the go ahead to create a bonfire and throw hundreds of copies of the Muslim sacred text onto it. And he had the courage not to back down in the face of criticism.
Yet it quickly became clear that the ‘criticism’ was not limited to just a few people. Almost everyone who read about the story thought it was a crazy, reckless, unloving, unChristian thing to do (and I wholeheartedly agree). Yet still he held firm.
Until, that is, the objections started coming from the Pentagon and the office of President Obama. Eventually Jones realised that this was not a simple statement of his faith, a line in the sand marking his objection to the acts of Muslim extremists on 9/11; this was now a major, international, diplomatic incident.
Lives were at stake. Christians in persecuted countries around the world could expect, if he went ahead, to face the fiercest retaliations. This was not, on any level, a good idea.
So Pastor Jones eventually, reluctantly, and still attempting to maintain his negotiating position, backed down.
Did he surrender his principles? Did he act weakly? Was he too easily influenced by the demands of others?
No. I think what enabled him to back down was that he realised his principle of promoting and advocating the Christian faith was coming into conflict with other principles – perhaps that of the sanctity of life, perhaps responsibility to his leaders and his country, perhaps wisdom, tact and love.
If you back down because people will dislike you if you don’t, that’s not good leadership.
If you back down because you don’t really care one way or the other, that’s not good leadership.
If you back down because you’ve been convinced that you’re wrong, and that your principles and end goals would be better served by taking an alternative route, that is good leadership.
Sometimes, backing down can be the only way to move forward.