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Amazing Grace

How the virtue of Grace keeps us buoyant and calm

By David Chapman

Grace may not be the most immediate virtue when we think of leadership skills.

But it’s an imperative.


Because the world is uncertain, unpredictable and unforgiving. “Sometimes”, as Julia Fearn pointed out in our last podcast episode, “it really feels like the universe has conspired to make us fail; in our jobs, in our professional career. When nothing that we really wished or work towards, is happening. And we are despairing. As managers, as leaders, as just professionals coming into work every day, how do we handle ourselves throughout these really difficult situations?

Is it graciously? Graceful? Is our frustration coming out towards the people we work with? Or the people we engage with every day? Or are we actually exercising some control over how we behave and containing that frustration, that anger, that disappointment, that that feeling of being a failure (whether real or imagined, and usually the latter)?

Grace gives us the ability to navigate this reality. Cultivating grace gives us the buoyancy to sail over the sharp rocks, and not get holed by the vicissitudes of life. Grace is an integral aspect of the resilient mindset.

Defining Grace

We might characterise grace as proactive acceptance and keeping negative emotions in check. Kipling’s quote – treat success and failure as imposters just the same. I recently listed to a podcast interview with the ex-England rugby player, Jonny Wilkinson, who, by any stretch of imagination had reached the top of his profession, a key player in a World Cup winning team.

And yet he said that he was depressed, miserable, hyper anxious, hypercritical, pretty much all the way through his career. And he has been on a fundamental journey to re-examine how he does things, to find a degree of contentment. And what he identified, was the need to let go of ego, as a key route to a state of grace.

He said, “well, if I’ve got a big kick to win a game, and I go into myself, and I attach to self-importance, that’s when all the pressure comes to bear. My critical voice says, ‘Oh, God, I can’t get this wrong. Everybody’s looking at me. I’m supposed to be one of the best players in the world!’ now, if I lose that sense of self-importance, and lose that sense of ego, and instead say, let me be curious about how I’m feeling in this situation? What are the possibilities? What am I curious about noticing about myself at the moment of this kick?”

Notice, don’t judge

Extrapolate that to any business situation well there’s a lot riding on it and we can see how easy it is to rush to judgement; of ourselves or others. And yet the ability to notice, rather than judge, is a key part of self-improvement.

Jonny Wilkinson also told a lovely story about being at funfair, when there was the game that if you shot a basketball through the hoop, you’d win a fluffy toy. And his daughter wanted a fluffy toy. So his wife says, “Oh, Daddy’s very good at that!”

And he said, the old me would have obsessed about it, looked at all the angles, would have gone into that negative, critical self-talk saying, “I’m a World Cup champion, of course, I have to hit the hoop!”

But instead, he just felt the ball. Asked himself, “how does that ball feel? That’s interesting. I’ve never felt a ball like this before” So losing what he called self-importance, gave him that grace to fully experience the situation, and then see it as a journey, not a destination.

Grace in business

All right, let’s say that your head of sales rushes in and says, “our lead client is saying they’re leaving, and they’re going to a competitor!” So what does grace look like in that scenario? What might grace look like in a leadership response?

Julia Fern’s response was “Probably just stopping for a moment, and let that settle in. Maybe it’s one of those moments where you need to give it a bit of space, assess that the impact of that message, acknowledge rather than judge or even shame the emotion that this evokes. No knee jerking, instant blame, running at 100 miles an hour, but letting that settle in just for a moment. When we try to pinpoint something towards an individual, apportion blame, we are overestimating what individuals can do, the power an individual has. And also one thing that I’ve learned really early on when working with some really large accounts, it’s never down to what has somebody done, it’s usually quite a bit more complicated. So when there are situations where people are trying to blame an individual, that is grossly oversimplifying a situation. It’s not providing anything of real value that would avoid this happening again, or that would actually create the culture in an organisation that you want – of people collaborating and collectively coming to conclusions”

David Chapman enables HR Directors to conquer their influence problems and secure the ear of their CEOs. He is the co-host of Espresso Briefing, a podcast that briefs time-poor executives on the latest insights in leadership, culture, and performance. His CSR contribution is to train advocates to give a voice to the dispossessed in society.



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