Winston Churchill allegedly said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” Churchill probably never really said those exact words, but it’s still a good quote.
To appease is “to pacify or placate someone by acceding to their demands.” Anyone who has ever been in a position of leadership will relate to the pressure to appease. Whether it’s done to avoid conflict or to make someone like us, the appeaser often mistakes his decision to appease with real leadership. “If everyone’s happy,” he mistakenly believes, “I must be doing a good job.” But appeasement doesn’t lead anyone anywhere, and it will eventually backfire because it merely prolongs the inevitable conflict to a later date. The crocodile is still going to eat.
Parents begin building habits of appeasement early. We literally use an instrument called a pacifier. As kids grow up, the pacifier morphs into the tablet screen and other compromises. My kids are teenagers now, but I remember those days well. We were often two exhausted parents willing do just about anything for a break from the chaos of life with five little ones. We often just wanted rest. We learned the hard way that appeasement often rewards and reinforces sinful behavior. When the child sees that a tantrum can secure the object desired, he or she will resort to that method in the future. At that point, parenting devolves into a test of wills, and exhausted parents rarely win. Appeasement always gives control to the discontented.
To make matters worse, Christian parents often err in assuming appeasement is somehow a more grace-centered approach to parenting. Shouldn’t we all want our kids to be happy? What’s wrong with giving them what they want? When we reason like this, however, we are sacrificing long-term contentment for short-term peace. Our children will be happier in the long run when they learn how to be disappointed well. Life is not going to grant them all their desires; neither should we as parents. We may score a shallow win in the moment, but we are not setting them up well for life.
It’s easy to see how appeasement can wreak havoc with small children. It’s much harder to see its fruits when we’re leading adults. But it works the same exact way. Appeasement hands control of the situation to whoever is making the loudest demands. It rewards misconduct. It encourages immature people to loudly insist on their own way. It often holds institutions captive as leaders forsake the task of leading people toward a predetermined goal in favor of calculating every action for maximum approval. The people who are there to learn and grow end up suffering the most. When appeasement reigns, the community loses its purpose, and every member suffers as a result.
If appeasement is so destructive, what’s the alternative? How do we lead without appeasement?
Real leadership depends on two things. First, the leader must have a clear destination in mind and enough wisdom to get people there. Second, the leader must possess moral courage, or the ability to stand up for and practice what is right and true despite pressure to do otherwise. Notice that leadership is more than knowledge and skill. It also requires character. You can read all the leadership books ever published, but if you don’t have the substance to withstand the discontents, you can’t lead.
I love the way Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 4:1-5. First, he reminds his readers that he’s not there to make them happy. Instead, he is a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God (v. 1). Stewards have one goal: remain faithful to whoever sent them (v. 2). He’s got the destination clearly in view. Then, he writes, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself” (v. 3). That’s the moral courage part. Paul makes it known that he’s not there to please anyone. He doesn’t care how they evaluate him. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. Effective leadership requires this mindset.
How do we get to a point where we don’t care what everyone thinks about us? This part is vital: Paul’s moral courage doesn’t come from the praise of other people or even from his own self-esteem. He’s able to lead as a faithful steward because of the gospel. Paul knows that his identity is not tied to the opinions of other people. Paul’s moral courage comes from his belief that God’s opinion is the only one that ultimately counts, and the verdict is already in—God is pleased with Paul in Christ. In Christ, Paul has already been declared righteous. Paul can lead effectively because he’s been liberated by God’s love and approval.
Leaders, you don’t have to appease. Christ has freed you to lead.