We’ve all lost sleep replaying the hurts and offences we experienced yesterday and rehearsing a hard conversation that we anticipate the next day. Sometimes the two are related. Yesterday’s wound sometimes means tomorrow’s confrontation. But memories and perceptions (even recent ones) can prove remarkably unreliable.

Memory (2)Why is it that the wee hours of the morning, when everything is darkest and most quiet, seem to magnify our troubles? Why does anytime after midnight distort reality so much?

Leadership has enough challenges, but when our rampant imagination takes over, we can easily lose all perspective. A sharp glance from a colleague, a rushed handshake, a humorless word, a reluctance to make eye-contact; we can read all sorts of nefarious intentions into the smallest body-language signals. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

In The End of Memory, Miroslav Volf notes that “we are prone to embellish our memories, and we do so often and quite innocently, especially in storytelling.” Furthermore, “a sense of familiarity with the process of remembering makes us think we remember the facts, but we don’t; for our imagination has clandestinely come to the aid of our faltering memory so that we unwittingly pass fiction for truths.” In short, we don’t remember well or accurately, and even when we remember accurately it may not reflect what was actually happening.

How often do we declare that “everyone supports a given position” only to find out that some people expressly oppose it, or that we wrongly interpreted their lack of vocal opposition to mean their full support? Incomplete memories and uninformed memories are par for the course.

Leaders beware.

In the stress of a moment, leaders can easily impute false motives and intentions to other people. “They’ve never liked me. They’re always thinking only of themselves. I never get their support. They don’t like to work hard. Etc.” Our own pressures and needs can subtly seduce us to blame others for our struggles. Irritation or pain can drive us to recall past moments with unfair bias and considerable inaccuracy. It’s always easier to accuse others of injustice than to acknowledge inadequacy on our own part.

Memories and perceptions are notoriously unreliable. Parents know this. Spouses know it. Managers know it. We all know it. Yet, a mind in hyper-drive is hardly a mind to be denied. We find ourselves driven to distraction and sleeplessness.

How can we “remember well” and respond fairly? How can we lead with utter integrity despite faulty memory?

Three brief suggestions: 1) Walk humbly, knowing that leadership is not about perfection but authenticity, vulnerability, and flexibility; 2) Speak gently, embracing the old maxim that we should seek first to understand and then to be understood;  3) Act compassionately, knowing that nine-tenths of the iceberg lies unseen beneath the surface.

Good leaders don’t have better memories, but they handle their memories better. How are you doing as a mom or a dad, a husband or a wife, a manager or a pastor?

David Timms is the Dean of the School of Christian Leadership at William Jessup University, and author of Shape Your World: Transformational Leadership for Everyday Life.