The Scarlet Letter of Leadership


Nathaniel Hawthorne

Remember in high school English, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter? If you never had the pleasure of reading it, here’s the cliffs notes. The gist of the story is that a preacher in a tiny puritan New England town has an affair with a young lady. He is not punished; she is, and as punishment she must brandish a scarlet letter “A” upon the breast of her clothes. The “A” is for adulterer, of course.

There’s more to the novel, but for our purposes, that’s all you need to know. The woman was forced to wear her shame upon her chest for all to see.

I think that we as leaders sometimes do the same thing. Not the doling of punishment so much as the wearing of the scarlet letter. We do it when we make mistakes.

Or, at least, I do it.

When I mess something up, which is on like… a weekly (sometimes daily) basis, I go through a little process. Frist, I feel bad. Second, I apologize. Third, I consider how I can correct my systems and processes in the future to avoid coming up short again. From there, the next logical step is to simply move on.

But I don’t do that.

There’s this thing in me that wants people to know that I feel badly because I let them down. In my mind, a simple apology isn’t enough, especially if it’s an important issue but also if it’s a small one. I know that my action (or inaction) caused them emotional pain at the worst and mild inconvenience at the least. In my mind, I feel that there needs to be an equal and opposite reaction to my mistake.

So I get sad. I take the mistake and bear it on my soul. I want people to know that I care and stitching the transgression to heart seems the best way. I wear it with sadness and a bad mood. I heap sorrow upon my head because I feel I deserve it.

Another pastor I know calls it the “I Suck Coat.” He told me that in the past, when he would screw up, he would be really hard on himself, sort of like taking this old, smelly, tattered coat of shame and putting it on like he deserved it instead of wearing grace.

And that’s part of the point Hawthorne was trying to make with his novel. Granted, I haven’t read it in a while, but that’s what’s stuck in the ten years since I last read it. Hawthorne was trying to say that heaping shame upon anyone didn’t fix anything, it just made them feel bad. Grace, even at a practical level, makes a lot more sense.

Grace empowers, especially when we don’t deserve empowerment. However, if you’re like me and you have an over-developed sense of responsibility and human empathy, you’ll not want to give yourself grace because each time you let anyone down, it feels like you let the whole world down. You stitch that mistake to your heart or wear it like an old coat. The truth of the matter, though, is that it doesn’t help. In fact, wearing the scarlet letter is a selfish act. It’s something we do to make ourselves feel better, like penance or going to church on Christmas. It doesn’t help anyone, not even ourselves.

I have to remember to stop being selfish and just fix the issue because God gave us sorrow for important things—loss, grief, trial. It’s a medicine not meant for the trivial hiccups of our day-to-day, but for the worst of times.

I have to remember that the solution to my mistakes and shortcomings is grace upon grace, to not give up on myself. I don’t owe the world my joy; rather, my joy is exactly the thing the world needs.