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This blog is about mercy projects. And why they are not such a good idea.
Today, I met someone on the train who’s life had changed drastically earlier this year. He had a promising career ahead of him. Many people saw him  as the coming man. Life had been so good for him. Until suddenly his life changed. The project got cancelled and for some reason people avoided him like if he had the plague. It was unfair.
Then someone called him on the train. He was drinking a beer, which was not his habit. He answered. The female voice on the phone enquired about his situation. He said he was feeling OK. His face said otherwise. Then she said she had a project for him. Asked if he had interest. The project was way below his former responsibilities. It was a mercy project. Someone felt pity and wanted to save him. He declined. I won’t hide, he said, but you will not see me that often at headquarters anymore.
A mercy project is a project you give to people who experienced bad fortune. You feel sorry for them and you feel the need to save them  from whatever disaster that is hanging over their head.
But here’s the thing. Many people don’t want to be saved. When people experienced injustice, they want justice, redemption, reparation, restitution. They don’t want to go into the world with a surrogate mission, a distant reflection of what could have been. If you try to save them, you show a lot of kindness, but a lack of empathy.
Acts of mercy may seem the right thing to do.  But they are most often not.

Don’t give bread to someone who is thirsty.

If you do, there will be a backlash. Mercy projects do no solve anything. They cover up.
What do we learn from that situation? It tells us how difficult compassion in a professional context is. A leader has to able to show kindness. But kindness is not the same as being merciful. Sometimes you are kind by not showing mercy. Mercy can feel like a judgement and in many ways it is. So let’s avoid them.
But, leaders can learn how to use their character as basis of their leadership, without being perceived as soft or weak.
The English version of my book on Sustainable Leadership will be published in the coming weeks. In that book I discuss the way someone can make leadership more sustainable in a VUCA world. For the moment you can find the version in Dutch here and the version in french here.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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