Leadership and Forgiveness: Five Steps for Letting Go

iStock_000006492382XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Forgiveness is a core competency of true leadership. After all, holding onto transgressions that happened in the past means wasting valuable energy that could be put into moving people forward. What’s more, insofar as workplace culture is built first and foremost by the example set by leadership, it is critical that leaders set the tone for an inclusive environment based on forgiveness and progress – rather than one of grudges, backbiting, and gossip that can kill innovation and productivity.

In a recent INSEAD working paper, Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, discusses why transformational leaders must learn to forgive, and how to do so with grace and power.

He writes, “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 color individual team and organizational functioning.”

“Forgiveness offers people the chance to take risks, to be creative, to learn, and to grow in their own leadership. Individuals, organizations, institutions, and societies can progress when people are not preoccupied by past hurts,” adds Kets de Vries. “Forgiving means accepting the fallibility of the human condition. It demonstrates courage, vulnerability, integrity, and trust, all constructive ways to build collaboration and connections.”

By letting go, leaders can help move their people forward.

Transformational Leadership and Forgiveness

According to Kets de Vries, because leaders operate at the nexus of relationships, with their every move up for scrutiny and reflection, they must set a positive example on forgiveness. They have a responsibility to demonstrate why forgiveness can actually lead to better results.

“Leading people and organizations means dealing with a maelstrom of relationships, which implies an enormous amount of emotional management,” he writes. “Leaders operate in settings in which strive is rive, and if left unresolved, will become a festering drag on effectiveness. Such conflicts need to be dealt with to allow organizations to move forward.”

He encourages leaders to think about the cost of holding onto past wrongs – stagnation or regression. “Truly transformational leaders are acutely aware of the cost of bearing grudges. They recognize the havoc that can be created by an unforgiving attitude. Exceptional, transformational leaders recognize that holding grudges is a form of arrested development; it holds people back.”

Finally, he suggests, demonstrating forgiveness can induce positive behavior throughout an organization, with employees following the example and working together for more positive outcomes. “Leaders are responsible for creating a culture of forgiveness, and creating such a culture has many advantages. To begin with, forgiveness builds loyalty and good citizenship. In organizations with a forgiveness culture, people are more likely to make an extra effort, which has important consequences for the bottom line.”

He adds, “True forgiveness supports the retention of valued employees, allows greater creativity and innovation, leads to increased profitability, and generates greater openness to change.”

Five Steps for Forgiveness

Rather than a one-time event, Kets de Vries, forgiveness is a journey over time. Here are his steps to a successful forgiveness journey.

1. Reflect. Remind yourself that holding a grudge can drain your energy and can lead to your own negative behavior.

2. Walk a Mile in Their Shoes. Put yourself in their place, and try to understand why they behaved the way they did. You don’t have to agree with their actions, but at least try to imagine where they were coming from.

3. Express Yourself. Share how the wrong-doing in question made you feel. “It is not enough simply to try to forget, because merely bypassing the emotion doesn’t make for true forgiveness,” Kets de Vries writes.

4. Come to an Understanding. Get some assurance that whatever happened won’t happen again. This comes down to building trust between both parties and will take time.

5. Let go. This is probably the hardest part of the forgiveness process, Kets de Vries shares. “Being able to do this, however, also means letting go of a position of power; only when forgivers surrender the dominant role, can they and their transgressors relate to one other again on an equal basis. For many people, this final step is what makes forgiveness a challenge.”

Letting go may be difficult, but it is the most important part of forgiveness. However, letting go does not mean forgetting, it just means forgiving and moving on. It’s important that all parties remember what went wrong so that the transgression is not repeated. “When we forgive, we do not change the past, but we can change the future,” adds Kets de Vries.

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