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Margaret BenefielMay 04, 2009

Twenty-first-century leaders are rewarded for their drive, decisiveness, productivity and long work hours. But what happens to the leader’s soul? Too often it shrivels and dies, harming both the leader and the organization the leader serves. This does not have to be the norm for leaders. This article focuses on one leader, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who nurtured and led from his soul amid one of the most challenging leadership tasks of the 20th century: healing the South African nation after apartheid. After apartheid ended in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was named in December 1995 to be head of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. South Africa had struggled to come to terms with how it would bring to justice perpetrators of crimes under the old regime. Retributive justice (punishing perpetrators through the courts) was not only too costly for the financially strapped country, but would also result in winners and losers, and could easily backfire. Blanket amnesty, on the other hand, would leave the victims unacknowledged, in effect victimizing them again. How was the country to move forward? South Africa had achieved independence. How could the country’s leaders persevere to the end and bring about a stable government after so much turmoil?

Leaders who choose the path of leading with soul and manage to stay on track must eventually face the question of whether they will persevere to the end. The further the leader goes on the path of soul, the higher the stakes. Among other things, the soulful leader must learn to break the cycle of violence that arises in virtually all human institutions, whether nations, organizations or families. The question for leaders is not whether they will encounter violence but how they will encounter it. Leaders who want to persevere to the end, leading with soul, to bring about deep and lasting transformation must eventually face violence and their own response to it. Addressing violence soulfully requires seeing both victims and perpetrators with compassion, standing with the courage to interrupt the violence and opening the space for forgiveness that can create relationships that fill the void left by violence. To illustrate these principles, this article will focus on the story of Desmond Tutu, emeritus archbishop of the Anglican Church in South Africa.

Seeing With Compassion

Breaking the cycle of violence begins with seeing compassionately, with the eyes of the heart. Through compassion, violence is transformed.

For Desmond Tutu, seeing compassionately grows out of prayer. It was prayer that undergirded his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, just as prayer had undergirded his ministry before that. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began to work toward uniting a divided country, Desmond Tutu turned to God for strength and guidance. Only through frequent, regular prayer was Tutu able to regard everyone, both victims and perpetrators, with compassion. “I wouldn’t have survived without fairly substantial chunks of quiet and meditation,” the archbishop declares emphatically. “The demands that are made on one almost always seem to be beyond one’s natural capacities. There would be many times when the problems, the crises we were facing seemed about to overwhelm us. There’s no way in which you could have confronted these in your own strength.”

In addition to his own prayer, Tutu has called on others to pray for him, especially in times of great need:

It is such a good thing to know at those times that you are part of a wonderful communion, a wonderful body, and there are those who are far more holy than you who are able to worship God with a depth of feeling and fervor which you are not feeling at all, which you are not experiencing. And you are borne on this current of worship and adoration, and all you need to do is throw yourself into the stream and you are carried.... When we started with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, I wrote to the secretary-general of the Anglican consultative council and asked him if he could please put this request to the religious communities of our church around the world, to say, “please pray for this enterprise.”

By establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa chose a third way, distinct from both retributive justice and blanket amnesty. By inviting perpetrators to apply for amnesty in exchange for full disclosure of their crimes, South Africa chose restorative justice, a justice of forgiveness and reconciliation. Leaders of the commission had to learn to see with compassion as they carried out their difficult work. Over the course of 18 months, the commission heard case after case, listening to victims as well as to perpetrators. Tutu says:


We in the commission were quite appalled at the depth of depravity to which human beings could sink.... We had to distinguish between the deed and the perpetrator, between the sinner and the sin, to hate and condemn the sin while being filled with compassion for the sinner.


Tutu found himself stretched to offer compassion to perpetrators on both sides, and his heart grew larger in the process.

Interrupting the Cycle

On numerous occasions, Desmond Tutu interrupted the cycle of violence in South Africa—during his service on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and at other times. On Sept. 6, 1989, for example, when apartheid was still in full force, peaceful protests were held in South Africa to boycott a racist election. Aiming indiscriminately, state security forces shot and killed 20 people, including children standing in their own yards. Upon receiving the news, Tutu ran into the chapel of his Cape Town residence, crying and beseeching God, “How could you let this happen?” It would have been easy to respond in fear, allowing the government to continue its intimidation of the country’s blacks or, conversely, to respond with hostility, joining those who called for armed resistance. Desmond Tutu chose neither.

When the archbishop emerged from his prayer, he announced that there would be a peaceful protest march. “It seemed like God was saying that the response was to call for a protest march,” he subsequently reflected. The march held on Sept. 13, which drew 30,000 people, was the first in a series of major protests that, in Tutu’s words, “marked the beginning of the end for apartheid.” In announcing, “We won’t stand for this violence,” while at the same time making the statement peacefully, the protesters were able to interrupt the country’s cycle of violence. Less than five months later, on Feb. 2, 1990, Prime Minister F. W. de Klerk announced the end of apartheid.

Archbishop Tutu interrupted the cycle of violence on another occasion, when security forces killed 38 people in Sebokeng, a black township, in 1990. Word of the massacre came to him during a meeting with his synod of bishops at a conference center in Lesotho. He left the meeting to cry and pray in the chapel, and then, feeling directed by God, returned to the bishops. Reflecting on the event later, he recounted urging the bishops to “suspend our meeting, which had never happened before, and go [to Sebokeng]. And the bishops, all of them, unanimously agreed. We put aside our whole agenda, and went.”

The bishops left Lesotho for Sebokeng early the next morning, celebrated the Eucharist in a local church when they arrived and then toured Sebokeng, visiting the injured and the bereaved. While the bishops were speaking with a crowd of young people gathered in the streets, a convoy of Casspirs (armored police vehicles with tear gas and machine guns) appeared. John Cleary of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported what he observed:


I heard the archbishop say, “Let us pray.” Then the noise of the vehicles stopped. The crowd went quiet. There was no sound from the Casspirs, no sound of tear gas canisters. So I looked around and there, behind me, were the Anglican bishops of Southern Africa—black, white, coloured, old, young—standing between the crowd and the Casspirs, with their arms outstretched. In that moment, I understood a little about what the Christian vision for a new South Africa cost people. I’d never witnessed that sort of courage before.


The bishops of southern Africa succeeded in interrupting the cycle of violence before it escalated even further in Sebokeng township.


Breaking the cycle of violence also includes forgiving. Once the cycle is interrupted through openhearted invitation and apology, the circle of transformation is completed by forgiveness.

Forgiveness formed the backbone of South Africa’s Truth and Reconcilia-tion Commission. As leader of the commission, unflinchingly facing the truth of the horrors propagated by and on South Africa’s people, Desmond Tutu also prayed to forgive.

The commission was structured to facilitate forgiveness by 1) setting a fixed term of two years for its operation, 2) collecting statements and 3) holding public hearings. The two-year fixed term was chosen so that those who desired amnesty would have ample time to apply for it and so that the process would have a clear ending, with no unfinished business left for the new government. The commission organized trained people to collect statements throughout the country, collecting 20,000 victim statements in all, more than had ever been collected in similar processes elsewhere. Public hearings were set up in districts across the country, both urban and rural, in such venues as town halls, civic centers and churches. Because of the mammoth outpouring of response to the call for victims’ statements, only about one victim in 10 received a public hearing. Those who did not receive a public hearing were assured by the commission that their written statements would be taken just as seriously as the statements of those who testified publicly.

The commission heard from both sides, both victims of the white apartheid government and victims of rebel forces. Tutu found himself inspired to forgive by the victims who forgave. “Mercifully and wonderfully, as I listened to these stories of victims I marveled at their magnanimity, that after so much suffering, instead of lusting for revenge, they had this extraordinary willingness to forgive.”

The commission also opened itself to applications for amnesty from perpetrators on both sides. Many exhibited courage, providing full disclosure of their misdeeds. Brian Mitchell, a police captain, asked for forgiveness from a devastated rural community where his orders had resulted in the killing of 11 innocent people, mostly women and children. He asked the commission to arrange for him to visit the community, and expressed his desire to be involved in its reconstruction. Desmond Tutu described Mitchell’s visit to the community:

It could have gone badly wrong. It was a difficult and tense meeting at the beginning, with everybody a little awkward and the community understandably hostile.... The atmosphere began to change, to ease, after a while. While one or two of the victims were still not too keen to forgive him, the majority were glad he had come, and by the time he left things had improved so much that they were waving him goodbye quite warmly.

Through forgiveness, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission saw time and time again how the cycle of violence could be broken and the circle of transformation completed.

Staying Centered

Even if it never comes to blows or bullets, leaders must invariably face their own inner violence and that of the people around them when anger fuels action and reaction. The natural response in those situations is to fight or flee, but soulful leaders may create a constructive third way out of the conflict. This is accomplished by not taking sides but by staying centered while thoughtfully ing themselves into the conflict, intervening by being a reflective or prayerful presence. The goal of this intervention is not to dampen or smother the conflict, but to break the cycle by which violent conflicts naturally escalate. This opens the way for forgiveness, respect and shared values, what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” to rise in the conflicting parties, encouraging them to seek creative solutions together.

Being in the center of conflict, whether physical, emotional or intellectual, takes its toll in stress, fear and despair. Leaders faced with violence, whether bullying, threats or dominating behavior, need to draw on their deepest spiritual resources to stay centered in these situations and rely on their everyday spiritual practices to restore them from the virtual or literal blows they absorb in the name of love. These resources allow them to persevere from a centered place and to lead by the example of their perseverance.

Persevering to the end, as the stakes on the path of leading with soul get higher, requires that leaders learn to break the cycle of violence. Desmond Tutu learned to see compassionately, to interrupt the cycle and to forgive. These three essential components work, as he discovered, in venues large and small. Once every leader learns how to do this, the ultimate goal becomes attainable.

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