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What Every Executive Should Know About Mercy

If you want a quick lesson on how to be a successful business executive who maximizes the initiative, trust, and ingenuity of his or her junior leaders, I invite you to observe a tactic utilized by the famous Lee Iacocca, the single-most influential person in the resurrection of Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s.

When Iacocca came to Chrysler in 1978, the corporation was on a downward spiral towards bankruptcy. Iacocca observed that many of his high-level executives were a part of the problem, taking little initiative to handle problems and offering few solutions to the ailing company’s diminishing profits. Seeking to build a confident rapport between him and his executive team, Iacocca instituted a rule that changed the culture of Chrysler and became instrumental in saving the company. What was it?

Lee Iacocca transforms Chrysler through mercy.

Lee Iacocca transforms Chrysler through mercy.

Every week, each of Iacocca’s executives would come into his office to give one report: everything they did wrong or failed to do in the previous week. And here is the catcher. As long as they confessed it, they may be reprimanded, but would never be punished.

After extending mercy to each of his executives, offering a short counseling on how they could improve in the following week, Iacocca would send them on their way confident in the trust and support of their CEO. This act of mercy, this clearing of the air between senior and junior co-workers, fostered an environment of trust, humility, ingenuity, and healthy risk-taking that allowed each executive the ability to operate without fear of making mistakes and synergized the Chrysler team to success.

Where did Lee Iacocca discover this great model of corporate leadership? Oddly enough, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Catholic Church.

Iacocca saw that the average person spent an exorbitant amount of energy every day seeking to justify him or herself or pass accountability for a failure to another. When people could not trust that their honest mistakes would be met with mercy, their life quickly became a charade dedicated to self-promotion and fighting to keep their weaknesses and shortcomings in the dark. Maintaining one’s own self-image subsequently became people’s personal mission, eventually subconsciously absorbing all focus and energy. Soon enough, his executives began failing to serve the true mission outside of themselves, be it in their family, community, or, in Iacocca’s case, the Chrysler Corporation.

Indeed, when we deny mercy to a person, we contribute to their egotism (inward focus) with inhuman demands of perfection. On the contrary, when we extend mercy to another, we help them grow in humility, self-knowledge, and mature in self-realization.

So, to foster humility, the virtue necessary for all those seeking to live a good and honest life, it is essential for all of us, especially the business leader, to frequently discern, “Where have I fallen short in my responsibilities as a man or woman, and need to receive mercy; and where can I extend mercy to someone who has failed to honor me as he or she should?” Of course, we can only confront these questions truthfully when we have an informed sense of justice, and ordered sense of what is right and wrong, and forgiveness often must be preceded by just anger. But mercy and forgiveness must always come in time, or resentment takes over, and in the words of the late Nelson Mandela, ” Resentment is like taking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Not ready to forgive yet? All in God’s perfect timing. As we enter into the season of Lent this week, perhaps it’s time to “clear the air” with our Heavenly Father, return to the healing Sacrament of Reconciliation, and receive the mercy necessary to forgive from the source of mercy Himself.

Light up the darkness!

Matt Ingold