This article explores the concept of forgiveness in the context of leadership, and suggests that forgiveness is one of the keys that distinguish mediocre or ineffective leadership from the exceptional. Below, the authors analyse the forgiving personality through a psychodynamic lens, and discuss how truly transformational leaders use forgiveness to advance societies, organisations and individuals.
An-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye…ends in making everybody blind. — Mahatma Gandhi
The Concept of Forgiveness in Leadership
In this article, we focus on the subject of forgiveness, arguing that it is one of the key factors that distinguish run-of-the-mill leadership from the exceptional. Leaders have such an important effect on many people’s lives that their lack of forgiveness can create a climate where anger, bitterness and animosity prevent a whole organisation, society or nation from being creative, learning, growing and developing their full potential. But forgiveness is not easy. However, we suggest that refusal to forgive carries heavy mental and physical costs for the individual and his/her environment. Individuals, teams, organisations, institutions, and societies can only move forward when people are not tied down by past hurts and the desire for revenge. Therefore, we will explore the concept of forgiveness, and discuss some of the key factors involved in the process.
The Case of John
A CEO in one of our leadership programs (let’s call him John), when presenting a problem he had with his chairman, mentioned that he often had debilitating headaches, which could become so painful that he was unable to function. Neither doctors nor health tests could find the reason. The only thing John could point to was that it was always in moments of conflict with an authority figure that the headaches would appear.
It transpired that as a child he had frequent disagreements with his father, a person with an explosive character who, at times, would beat him. He recalled how resentful and helpless he felt about his father’s actions. He added that presently he was not on talking terms with his father, which made family gatherings extremely difficult. Pointing out that these incidents had happened so long ago we asked John if he would consider forgiving his father. The question fell on deaf ears, and John’s body language illustrated clearly that forgiving his father was not something he would ever consider.
When he came back to a follow-up session, three months later, John appeared much more at peace with himself. It turned out that after some reflection he had sent a ‘forgiveness email’ to his father, who had responded favorably so John decided to have a talk with him. This helped him see his father in a very different light, and also realise the part he himself played in the childhood conflicts. By reaching out, John had become part of the family again, and, amazingly, his headaches ceased. John had become less prickly, more understanding—and more forgiving, also with the people who worked for him.
Forgiveness Sets us Free: Nelson Mandela
John’s story illustrates how forgiveness can improve a person’s quality of life—including life at the workplace. Looking at forgiveness at a much grander scale, we can take the example of Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa. This transformational political leader has captured the imagination of people around the world, with his dignity, humility and courage, standing on the balcony of Cape Town’s city hall on February 11, 1990, after 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island, his arms outstretched: ‘I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all’.
Mandela came to power in a period in South Africa’s history when the political situation was explosive. Many black people, having been humiliated and mistreated under apartheid, were demanding revenge. What could have become a very violent situation, Mandela saw as an opportunity for healing, believing that only through forgiveness would South Africa become a unified nation. By choosing to forgive, Mandela became the most admired and revered political leader in the world. He showed his strength, and courage, his forgiveness being the power that broke the chains of bitterness and hatred.
Homo Homini Lupus
We all know that life is not a calm flowing river. Relating to others, whether friends, strangers, or family members, comes with the risk of being hurt: our parents may have been tough on us, our teachers may have been unpleasant, colleagues may have sabotaged our projects, or our life partner may have been unfaithful. Letting others get close makes us vulnerable. And the most logical reaction to being hurt is vowing to get even.
As a leader, these vicissitudes of the human condition become even more magnified. Leading others means dealing with a maelstrom of relationships implying an enormous amount of emotional management. Leaders operate in settings rife with strife, which if left unresolved, can become a festering drag on an organisation’s effectiveness. Truly transformational leaders are acutely aware of how costly it is to hold on to grudges, and how an unforgiving attitude keeps people from moving forward. Instead of following Mandela’s example, (claiming that ‘Forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.’) they get stuck into a spiral of negativity, taking everyone around them with them.
But what is forgiveness all about? The Oxford English Dictionary defines forgiveness as ‘to grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offense or debt’. In other words, it is the renunciation or cessation of resentment, indignation, or anger as a result of a perceived offense or disagreement, and pertains to ceasing to demand punishment or restitution. Forgiving is all about controlling impulses to act destructively in response to the hurtful actions of others.1 In the process of forgiveness negative emotions are transformed into positive ones as the offended decides to forgo all claims for retribution.
Forgiveness is never easy, bitterness and holding on to our grudges takes much less of an effort. So why should one make such an effort at all, instead of just following the natural instinct of revenge?
An Eye for an Eye
Unfortunately, for too many people in leadership positions, revenge comes more naturally than forgiveness. Human being’s have an innate sense of justice: we want others to be punished for what they have done to us. A strong reaction to fairness or unfairness seems to be programmed into the brain, making us ‘“hard-wired’” to retaliate when others hurt us.2 From an evolutionary point of view, this behaviour served a critical purpose for homo sapiens in the genesis of social and cooperative systems. Tit for tat has been the way of protecting ourselves, with reciprocity and vengeance being a warning signal to the violator to not cross over that boundary again, or risk escalation and more negative consequences. This rule of ‘”an eye for an eye’”, the Lex Talionis, (law of equivalency) can already be found in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1792 to 1750 BC). Paradoxically, it was meant to be humanitarian in its intent by making the punishment fit the crime. The Lex Talionis thus became a powerful vehicle for motivating, sustaining, and regulating the cooperative behaviour required of humankind.
Thus, taking revenge may make us feel righteous, but it is an extremely primitive reaction in our emotional repertoire. Moreover, it also opens a Pandora’s box of counter-reactions: revenge tends to invite more revenge. In spite of the danger of entering a downward spiral, humankind seems to find it easier to hate than to forgive, perceiving it as intolerable that the hurtful behaviour would go unpunished. Given all these opposing forces, the act of forgiving is something that requires a lot of effort and courage. But it also means that being forgiving is, contrary to what many believe, a sign of not weakness but considerable strength. To quote Mahatma Gandhi, ‘The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong’.
And, although taking revenge is part of our inheritance as homo sapiens, it doesn’t mean it is a deterministic given. Today, we can have a modicum of control over our lives and choose the way we deal with people who hurt us.
Neither Sweet nor Satisfying
Holding on to grudges can be very costly to mental and physical health. It takes an enormous amount of energy to hate, and to keep hatred in place. And when we cannot forgive the people who have hurt us, these feelings can become like a mental poison that destroys the system from within. Ironically, this mindset will allow the very people we would prefer to forget to keep on haunting us. Hatred, spite, bitterness, and vindictiveness, as numerous studies have shown, create a fertile ground for stress disorders, negatively affecting the immune system.3 An unforgiving attitude is positively correlated to depression, anxiety, hostility, and neuroticism,4 and associated with premature death.3 In comparison, forgiveness contributes to greater psychological well-being, less anxiety, less stress and hostile feelings, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, and lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse. Furthermore, people who forgive more readily also tend to have fewer coronary problems.5 All of this means that being forgiving is not something we do for other people, but first and foremost for ourselves.
Forgiving, not Forgetting
To forgive, however, does not mean to excuse and wipe out whatever unacceptable behaviour occurred. It just means we have made peace with the pain, and are ready to let it go. Realistic forgiveness is about healing the memory of the harm, not erasing it. When we forgive, we don’t change the past, but we can change the future by taking control of our destructive feelings instead of letting them control us, and creating a new way of remembering. Truly transformational leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Kyi have figured this out, refusing to replay past hurts, and choosing serenity and happiness over righteous anger.
The Forgiving Person
But why are some people more likely to forgive than others and what differentiates them from those who remain vindictive and bitter? What makes leaders behave like Mandela rather than Mugabe?
Research on personality traits has shown that people high on the forgiveness scale tend to be more emotionally stable, thrive in the interpersonal realm and experience less interpersonal conflicts.6 Furthermore, it has been noted that forgiving people are more open to cooperation, compassion, and social harmony. Chronological age was also found to have a positive correlation with forgiveness: the older we get, the more we see things in perspective and become more forgiving.7
Taking a psychodynamic-systemic approach to our work with leaders, we have found 3 factors that appear to differentiate the ones who are more prepared to forgive:
Degree of obsessional rumination: One of the reasons some people get stuck and cannot move on in their lives is that they engage in a process of constant, obsessive thoughts about how they were wronged and how to make up for it, often to an extent that these thoughts start clogging their minds, and make day-to-day living emotionally draining (an excellent example being The Count of Monte Cristo, of Alexander Dumas). This process of rumination is not necessarily under the control of a person’s conscious mind, and changing it therefore requires a considerable degree of self-awareness about its origins that can be traced back to childhood. Some of us have internalised very harsh rules (set by our parents and other authority figures), in particular, people who have been subjected to rigid, autocratic standards of child rearing, and to childhood abuse seem to be more likely to exact revenge for past injuries and injustices, contrary to others, who were fortunate to grow up in a more benign environment.
Degree of empathy: Empathy is what allows us to identify emotionally and understand cognitively another person’s mental state. It is the evolutionary mechanism that motivates altruistic and pro-social behaviour.8 Imagining and feeling what another person experiences allows us to consider the motivations of the transgressor, and makes empathy one of the most important determinants of our ability to forgive.9
Empathy is a skill that we learn early on. Parents who provide a warm, positive environment for their children, and who show sensitivity to their needs and emotions are most likely to have empathic children.10 Such parent-child interchange allows the child to develop the necessary inhibitory mechanisms for self-regulation of aggressive and impulsive behaviour.11 In contrast, children who are raised in situations of disrupted attachment relationships and exposure to aggressive or abusive models of parenting, will not develop the proper intra-psychic structures necessary to adequately modulate feelings of vindictiveness, and revenge. For these people, forgiveness is extremely difficult.
Degree of emotional self-control: The way we were treated in the early years of our life leaves a very strong mark, and individuals who did not receive the necessary attention and care as children often tend to grow up with feelings of perceived injustice, tending to focus on what they do not have, and how they might get it. For these people, there were no ‘containing’ figures available to help them deal with feelings of anger and rage. There was nobody available who could soothe them when they felt wronged. To compensate for these feelings of injustice and the sense of being wronged, these people are driven to seek power, authority and status.12 But even when successful, they compare themselves unfavorably to others, envying their success, reputation, possessions or qualities, often expressing this envy towards the achievements of others through emotional explosiveness and outbursts of rage. They falsely assume that self-worth can be only be attained through possessions or achievements, and they are motivated to spoil things for those who they see as self-confident, successful and happy. Haunted by such feelings, they create their own self-imposed purgatory.
The Art of Forgiving
Is man a wolf to his fellow man? Perhaps, there is an element of truth in this expression. All of us have a darker side. What defines a person looking for growth and personal development is not a spotless life of constant kindness and an even temperament, but the willingness to learn from mistakes, and to make the choice to come to terms with whatever has happened to them. We are referring to people who are strong enough to realise that they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives with a pain that they (most likely), were not responsible for. When leaders have these attributes, they are able to move society, institutions, organisations, and individuals forward.
Mahatma Gandhi warned that, ‘The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong’. And according to Indira Gandhi, ‘Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave’. Forgiveness is an extremely powerful concept for leaders. It can change the way society, institutions, organisations, teams, and individuals operate. This is recognised by truly effective leaders, who appreciate what the human condition is all about, recognising its frailty and vulnerability, and offering forgiveness to followers. Truly transformational leaders can create internal harmony and a sense of reparation by practicing the art of forgiveness, by using failures and unwanted situations to develop a culture of compassion and understanding, creating places where people feel safe to express themselves and at their best.13 Forgiveness may be the most important gift leaders can give to the people they are responsible for, offering them the chance to take risks, to learn and to grow in their own leadership within the organisation or the community.
Leaders also need to be forgiving and forgiven, given their own vulnerability. Forgiveness enables leaders to recognise their own mistakes, failures and flaws as opportunities towards greater wisdom, compassion and capability. Without forgiveness, there cannot be true leadership.
The psychiatrist Thomas Szász said, ‘The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget’. Forgiveness is a rebirth of hope, a move towards the future. Once forgiving begins, dreams can be rebuilt. And although forgiving doesn’t change the past, it permits the construction of a new future. As Gandhi, Mandela, and other truly great leaders have shown us, forgiveness is what characterises a leader of real spiritual and emotional maturity.
About the Authors
Manfred Kets de Vries is the Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development and Organisational Change at INSEAD, France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi. He is also the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership Development Research at ESMT in Berlin and the chairman of KDVI, a boutique leadership development consulting firm. He has held professorships at McGill University, HEC Montreal, and the Harvard Business School, and he has lectured at top management institutions around the world. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 35 books, and more than 350 articles, which have been translated into 31 languages. The Financial Times, Le Capital, Wirtschaftswoche, and The Economist have judged Manfred Kets de Vries as one of the leading thinkers in management.
Dr. Katharina Balazs is Associate Professor in the Strategy, Organisation and HR Department of The European School of Management (ESCP Europe) in Paris, as well as Executive Coach at the INSEAD Global Leadership Center in Fontainebleau, and at ESMT in Berlin. The author and co-author of several books and articles on outstanding leadership, and former strategic consultant in international M&As, she also runs her private coaching and executive development practice, working with executive development in global organisations.
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