In a recent conversation about the painful consequences of certain actions, the word redemption popped into my mind. It’s not part of my everyday vocabulary and so it appeared without the textured understanding that comes from familiarity and regular use. I tentatively offered the word to my friend, leading us to explore its meaning.

My dictionary advises that redemption is the act of redeeming which, in turn, is defined by phrases such as: to free oneself from; to recover or free by payment; to atone for; to compensate for; to deliver from; and to reclaim.

Weaving together these varied aspects of redemption, I get a sense of one thing being exchanged for another – whether redeeming a voucher or redeeming our character through some kind of reparation for a transgression.  

As my friend and I talked, I discovered that I fervently believe in the possibility of making amends to mitigate any harm I’ve caused (usually inadvertently) and to attempt to rebuild trust I’ve dented or diluted. This belief is so embedded that I hadn’t noticed it before – and it feels unimaginably bleak to consider a world in which redemption isn’t an option.   

To me, balancing an unwise action that has adverse consequences with wise actions that serve others well is a form of natural justice. Further, I believe it isn’t necessary for the relationship between the negative impact of a poor choice and any compensating changes to behaviour to be linear. In the broadest terms, all actions contribute to a global account of detriment or benefit – the world becomes a better place when more people act more ethically, kindly or honourably, for whatever reason.  

In contrast to this systemic view of the way causing distress and restorative action are linked, I believe that reparation for wrongdoing must be made in kind. By this, I mean that damage caused by deeds can only be put right with further deeds – usually over time. Misdeeds cannot be repaired by words alone.

This is highlighted in story from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, in which Stephen Covey describes a man grumbling about his wife being perpetually suspicious about his activities when he travelled for business. He complained that she ‘questions everything I do whenever I’m away.’ With good reason perhaps – he’d met her on such a trip, whilst married to someone else!

Covey’s response?

‘You can’t talk yourself out of problems you behave yourself into.’

For me, this was a fresh take on actions speaking louder than words. I’ve tended to focus on the difficulty of behaving our way into our good intentions or aspirations rather than behaving our way out of problems we’ve created. However, both are aspects of a deeper truth: while our mind easily grasps the potential of different conduct, our body acquires new habits only through repeating them again and again. While we can quickly change our minds, it takes time to reliably embody a new attribute, skill or behaviour.

Changing practice is challenging enough when we’re trying to raise our game and become more adept in what we do. It’s far harder when we’re in the habit of operating in ways that harm others and diminish their trust in us – we then have to demonstrate our commitment to righting wrongs by consistently being more principled. In doing this, we rehabilitate our reputation with both ourselves and others, beginning a cycle of growth and opportunity.

This seems hugely relevant in a world in which there are many examples of people in privileged positions trying to explain away their questionable actions with a few words. Their carefully crafted apologies often seem insincere – and when nothing changes, the reputation of leadership itself is tarnished alongside the demise of their personal standing. While I choose to believe that such individuals may one day exchange their unsavoury behaviours with wholesome alternatives, I suspect that hell might freeze over first!

What concerns me most is redeeming the credibility of leadership itself.

We can all contribute to this, by redoubling our efforts to model good practice in leadership. This will increase both the incidence and prevalence of it. If enough of us are persistent, the integrity of leadership might eventually be restored.


  • How does your own leadership already reflect good practice? How might you bring even more of these attributes and qualities into your activities?
  • When your leadership falls short of good practice, how do you redeem yourself?