The Leader and Emotion: Guilt

Leaders fail!

Paul’s declaration that “All have sinned….” (Romans 3:23) certainly includes leaders. And sin produces the emotion of guilt which is not a pleasant feeling!

David experienced guilt after committing adultery with Bathsheba. His sin was more public than most and David wrote openly about his guilt.

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. 14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness (Psalm 51:1-3; 12-14).

Guilt should be recognized. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” David recognized he needed cleansing because of his guilt. This recognition took a long time for David, coming only after a rebuke from the prophet Nathan, months after his sin.

His story illustrates the power of our minds to justify sin after we have done wrong. We want to avoid the emotion of guilt because when we recognize guilt, we must acknowledge our wrongdoing. Our minds will provide many reasons that we are not guilty or convince us that what we are feeling is not actually guilt.

But servant leaders learn to recognize guilt as a gift from God to lead them to repentance.

Guilt should be revealed. David revealed his guilt in writing and we still read it centuries after his sin! Guilt is not an easy emotion to reveal. The emotion of guilt brings a quick temptation to ignore it or hide it from self and others. To reveal the emotion of guilt is to admit wrong and no one enjoys confession. But the emotion of guilt carries a purpose, to bring repentance. Repentance can’t happen until guilt is revealed. Ignoring guilt only leads to greater guilt!

Leaders are tempted more than others to hide their guilt since their leadership reputation is at stake. Followers often expect leaders to be perfect and leaders who don’t reveal their guilt encourage this expectation. Leaders who won’t admit guilt often hypocritically point fingers at the mistakes others. They think that if others look guilty, they look better!

But servant leaders learn to reveal their guilt appropriately. Sometimes guilt needs to be acknowledged privately. But many times guilt needs to be shared with another person or a group. Servant leaders learn from David not to hide their guilt.

Guilt should be restrained. Unresolved guilt can cripple a leader. The enemy will whisper that we can’t lead when we have sinned. But David says, “Then I will teach transgressors your ways.” David confessed his sin and then allowed his guilt to open up more doors for influence. He recognized that a leader who has gone through the brokenness of confession and repentance becomes a stronger leader.

A leader’s repentance brings greater compassion and empathy for others who fail. Leaders who experience God’s grace can extend God’s grace to others. Servant leaders learn to restrain their guilt so that it does not hinder their leadership but enhances it. They recognize and reveal their mistakes and then move on, leading with greater compassion and grace.

May God enable each of us, like David, to lead with grace when we experience guilt.


Until next time, yours on the journey,

Jon Byler


For further reflection and discussion:

  • In what situation recently did I experience guilt? How did I respond and in what way was my response similar or different than David’s?
  • When I am guilty, in what ways does my mind justify what I have done? How can I be freed from this pattern of thinking?
  • In what situations do I need to reveal my guilt to others? What makes this difficult for me?
  • Are there times when I feel a “false” sense of guilt because of the expectations of others? What is God saying to me about how to respond to this guilt?
  • Are there situations in which a leader should stop leading, at least temporarily, because of guilt? What situations would call for this step and how can it be done with grace? Have I discussed this issue with key leaders on my team so that we are in agreement before this situation arises? If not, when can I initiate this conversation?

Copyright, Global Disciples 2018.