On Leadership, Forgiveness and the Authentic Leader

Leading with the Open Honesty called Vulnerability

It is widely accepted that forgiveness is a sacred act…a sacrifice! But did you know that this single act has a lot to do with our authenticity as leaders?

Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.” ~Andy Stanley

Having just written On Leadership, Suffering and the Sacrificial Leader, there is perhaps no better follow-on. From two Latin words: Sacer (sacred, holy) and Facere (to do, perform), nothing seems to touch the experience of both leader and follower quite like the sacrifice of forgiveness.

One of my favorite authors on servanthood and servant-leadership, Chuck Swindoll, describes forgiveness in the most practical, flesh and bone, earthy terms imaginable in Improving Your Serve:

It is tears of deepest sorrow and joyous relief. It is humiliation and affirmation. It is guilt grappling with grace, pain pursuing peace.”

These are aspects of forgiveness that should hold our attention and have our allegiance as leaders. Why? Because as Chuck says this:

…however we describe [forgiveness, it is] one of the most powerful acts of servanthood we can participate in—and one of the most difficult.”

It is powerful because the deeper the sorrow the greater the joy; the greater the humiliation, the higher the affirmation. It is difficult because guilt necessarily grapples with grace and there is pain in pursuing peace.

The Case for Forgiveness and Leadership

The roots connecting forgiveness to leadership in the organizational context run deep in the servant model. Dr. Jeffrey D. Yergler has done all of us a remarkable service by writing the 3-part series The Servant Leader and the Exercise of Forgiveness in the Context of the Organization, and for the sake of space I will simply point the reader there for further study.

Role Playing for Real Leadership

Because leadership is really about influence or impact, there are two distinct roles in the forgiveness process for every real leader and follower: that of the offender and that of the offended. If we are the offender, we need to understand more about repentance as David Augsburger describes it in Caring Enough to Confront:

Repentance is living in the open honesty called vulnerability. Repentance is growing in the decisive honesty we call responsibility.”

Anyone who becomes a student of servant-leadership will have the opportunity to learn many times over the immense value in living vulnerably and growing responsibly through our mistakes—specifically the ineffective impact that our restrictive leadership strategies or passive/aggressive-defensive thinking styles have on others.

But then there comes occasion for playing the role of the offended. Are we as prone to extend forgiveness in the learning process to others as we are in asking for it when needed ourselves? The answer to this question goes beyond vulnerability and responsibility to things far deeper and potentially far more insidious in our character: hypocrisy and accountability.

From Hypocrisy to Authenticity

The basic idea here is that the act of failing to extend forgiveness to others, when we routinely need and receive it ourselves, is hypocritical. This hypocrisy destroys our authenticity and, as a result, our ability to take responsibility for our mistakes or to hold others accountable for mistakes that are clearly within their span of control.

Before going farther, it is important that I explain what is meant by “…holding others accountable for mistakes that are clearly within their span of control.” This is not fixing the blame or playing the blame game. It is first and foremost the hard work of finding common causes of variation and then fixing the system.

In the vast majority of cases, the perceived error can be attributed to a management system that is outside the span of control for most in your leadership impact area. For the vital few that actually are attributable to factors that are truly local faults, I’ll defer the reader again to Dr. Yergler’s series on servant-leadership and forgiveness, with particular focus on Part III:

…forgiveness helps servant-leaders hold employees accountable for the stewardship of the organization in terms of production quality and the return on the investment of assets. Though forgiveness must consistently be applied regardless of the person or performance, servant-leaders should always expect a return on the action of forgiveness (ROForgiveness).”

And here-in lays the relationship to our role as offender. When we seek forgiveness for our mistakes and actually change our leadership behavior as a result, we model this practice for those who will themselves be expected, at some point, to improve their performance.

As forgiveness is extended for mistakes that offend our accountability for proper stewardship of organizational resources and finances, whether in areas of core values or organizational processes, there can authentically (and should rightly) be a connection to personal and/or performance change.

The Return on Forgiveness

The full return on forgiveness comes through the commitment of the forgiven to learn, change and grow and, in the organization, will remain largely unknown and unknowable.

There are a few ways, however, in which some of the return might be measured:

  1. Marked change in attitude or behavior
  2. Demonstrable growth in knowledge, skills or abilities
  3. Improvement of overall effort in performance, etc.

That said, much of the return depends on how it is carried out and the extent of the personal/ performance change demanded of good stewardship. In the worst case, the change may result in reassignment or termination-for-cause. Dr. Yergler again has incredible insight here:

Unintended mistakes, though always forgivable, are in some cases not worth the risk of a repeated failure. Even in reassignment or termination, forgiveness by the servant-leader remains an act of grace and can foster new beginnings for the person and the organization.”

I love that he goes on to describe this act of grace as something “…profoundly restorative, empowering and generative of the human spirit.” For the servant-leader, there is no alternative, particularly when called upon to make the most difficult decisions in the organization…those that directly impact the lives of others at the point of greatest vulnerability.

So, when was the last time you asked for forgiveness as a leader? When was the last time you extended forgiveness to others as a leader? Here’s an even tougher question: How have your actions to forgive as a leader: (a) helped others realize that their self-worth is not tied to their mistakes and (b) reinforced the idea that learning from them is an inelegant, but essential process for worthwhile change and growth? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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Richard Dillard

Richard S. Dillard is Founder/ Managing Partner at Dillard Partners, LLC
Pursuing Success at the Speed of Leadership!
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