Why elements of forgiveness are vital for effective leadership
By SANDY CLARKE
There is something sticky about forgiveness. It’s a great quality to talk about but often, adhering to a New Year’s resolution of dieting and exercise can seem more palatable than forgiving someone.
Whenever we’re wronged—slightly or otherwise—our minds tap immediately into restoring order to our universe, which usually means seeking some kind of revenge or recompense.
Forgiveness is something to be left to the saints and mystics; it’s a virtue that is always impressive and one that’s advised more often than heeded.
Sometimes, forgiveness is seen as a weakness, chosen by those who lack the stomach for confrontation and so give up an opportunity for justice. But, in truth, forgiveness is a strength, which is why so many struggle to fully embrace it.
The weakness lies in our ego, in our need to be appeased and acknowledged as someone who has been wronged, in a way that suggests that we believe life should never run against our expectations.
Holding onto grudges and past ills that can’t be changed is a waste of energy that could be better put to use moving ourselves and our ambitions forward. Forgiveness, therefore, is more than a strength—it’s the smart move to make. Otherwise, the painful past remains in your head, rent-free, taking up a large space where positive emotions could be working to inspire and motivate.
When it comes to leadership—where examples are set and behaviours scrutinised—forgiveness should be on par with giving and generosity if there’s to be hope of cultivating a culture built on support, trust, and mutual respect.
Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries—distinguished clinical professor of leadership development and organisational change at INSEAD (Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires)—views forgiveness as a key trait that separates the best from the rest among leaders.
“Forgiveness is one of the factors that differentiates exceptional from
mediocre or ineffective leadership. When leaders forgive, they dissipate built-up anger, bitterness and the animosity that can colour individual team and organisational functioning,” he explains in an INSEAD working paper, The Art of Forgiveness: Differentiating Transformational Leaders.
He goes on, “Forgiveness offers people the chance to take risks, to be creative, to learn, and to grow their own leadership capabilities. . . Individuals, teams, organisations, institutions, and societies can only move forward when people aren’t preoccupied by past hurts. . .
“. . . Forgiving means accepting the fallibility of the human condition. It demonstrates courage, vulnerability, integrity and trust, all constructive ways to build collaboration and connections.”
As Kets de Vries points out, forgiveness fosters progress when people aren’t preoccupied by past pains. This echoes the sentiment offered by spiritual teachers throughout the ages that forgiveness isn’t a noble virtue reserved for the few—it’s a necessary quality we can and should all work to cultivate, given the benefits of well-being for all concerned.
On the other hand, holding on to grudges, fixating on revenge and harbouring bitterness serves only to drain the energy of the individual holding the grudge, and prolongs a difficult situation for much longer than necessary.
In any case, tough situations are never improved by clinging to negative feelings; in fact, it can often cause new problems to arise, which then have to be dealt with on top of existing difficulties.
There are many rousing examples of the kind of strength that comes with forgiving horrific acts of betrayal and wrongdoing—and each of them shows the kind of progress that can be made when we choose to extend an open hand rather than a closed fist.
Forgiveness is a remedy, an antidote for the stresses and strains that accompany bitterness and grudges. In leadership, it allows us to forge a new course towards lasting success and creating a positive legacy. In life, it’s what sets us free and allows us to shake ourselves from the past, enabling us to fully embrace the time we have now to build towards greater things to come.
3 Inspiring stories of forgiveness in leadership
It was a heartbreaking tale that sparked global outrage. On Oct 9, 2012, the then 15-year-old activist for female education boarded her school bus, and was subsequently shot three times by a Taliban gunman for her efforts in raising awareness of oppression and inequality in Pakistan.
Malala’s miraculous survival inspired a wave of international support, and the recognition of her brave, tireless campaigning led her to become the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate.
Former United Kingdom Prime Minister, and United Nations (UN) Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown launched a UN petition in Malala’s name, demanding that every child throughout the world should have access to education. This led to the ratification of Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill.
In a 2013 interview with The Guardian newspaper, Malala said of her attacker, “He was young, in his 20s … he was quite young, we may call him a boy. And it’s hard to have a gun and kill people. Maybe that’s why his hand was shaking. Maybe he didn’t know if he could do it. But people are brainwashed. That’s why they do things like suicide attacks and killing people. I can’t imagine it—that boy who shot me, I can’t imagine hurting him even with a needle. I believe in peace. I believe in mercy.”
When Azim’s 20-year-old son Tariq was gunned to death in San Diego by a 14-year-old gang member in 1995, he said his initial grief felt like “a nuclear bomb going off inside my heart.”
Tariq’s killer, Tony Hicks, received a 25-year prison sentence for his crime.
Tariq’s father spent weeks praying, in search of the strength to deal with his tragic loss. At the conclusion of this prayer period, he found forgiveness within his heart, realising that there were “victims at both ends of the gun.”
He joined with Hicks’ grandfather, Ples Felix, to establish the Tariq Khamisa Foundation—an organisation committed to “stop children from killing children,” which included both men giving talks to schoolchildren at all levels on gang life, revenge and violence, and empowering young people to make positive life choices in order to break free from the cycle of violence.
Azim revealed in an interview, “Five years after the tragedy I met Tony. It was a very healing time. I found him very likeable—well-mannered and remorseful. You do forgiveness for yourself, because it moves you on.
“The fact that it can also heal the perpetrator is the icing on the cake. Tony is studying in prison now, and I know we will save him. In return, Tony will go on to save thousands of other children. I have written a letter to our Governor to commute Tony’s sentence.”
Corrie Ten Boom
Corrie ten Boom was a watchmaker in her family’s business when the Nazis occupied the Netherlands during the Second World War. The family soon became part of the resistance movement and sheltered Jews behind a false wall in their home.
In 1944, the family were arrested by the Gestapo following a tip-off. Her father died a few days later, while Corrie and her sister were deported in September to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Corrie’s sister, Betsy, died in December, and in the same month Corrie escaped death due to a clerical error and was released from the camp just days before women her age were scheduled to be killed.
Later, during a church service in Munich, she came face-to-face with a former Ravensbrück guard. He didn’t recognise the woman in front of him, but asked for her forgiveness following a message she’d just delivered on God’s forgiveness.
Initially, Corrie felt unable to forgive the former guard for his atrocities, but she was soon moved to find it in her heart to forgive him and accepted the man’s extended hand.
4 Core principles of forgiving
1. Express how you’re feeling
Forgiveness is not about denying that you feel wronged or hurt. On the contrary, it’s about denying what you truly feel that makes forgiveness seem impossible. Whether alone or in the company of friends, find a suitable environment where you can discuss, write, vent, cry or scream—whatever feels authentic in the moments of acknowledgement.
It’s better to express how you feel than to suppress problematic emotions and leaving them to fester.
2. Acknowledge the reality
There are always two sides to a story. Having said that, in difficult times, it can feel like there’s only one, and so we choose to focus solely on our own sadness and pain. Instead, try to look honestly at the situation: how the other person(s) played their part, how you played yours, and how you reacted. Reflection nurtures the seeds of forgiveness, and yet is so often neglected as part of the process.
3. Consider the lesson
How has the experience made you stronger? What can you learn from the difficulties you’ve faced? Who has the power to choose how you move on?
Although it seems doubtful at the time, challenging situations always offer at least one lesson to be learnt. How can you grow from, and as a result, appreciate hardships you face?
4. Know the other person(s)
In a world of seven billion people, no one is perfect. Just as many will find us wonderful, loving, talented and kind, others will find us irritating, difficult, and aloof—and we will get things wrong and upset others.
With that in mind, consider the other person’s position, how, like you, they’re not perfect and are likely experiencing hardships and difficulties of their own. It doesn’t excuse their actions, but it opens up the opportunity for compassion and forgiveness if you can see that they’re just as human as you are.
5 Powerful quotes on forgiveness
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” —Martin Luther King Jr.
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” —Nelson Mandela
“True forgiveness is when you can say, ‘Thank you for that experience.’ ” —Oprah Winfrey
“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” —Mark Twain
“To be wronged is nothing, unless you continue to remember it.” —Confucius