Bad Leaders Don’t Forgive

By Grant Wattie
President, N2Growth Australia

“The weak can never forgive.

Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”

~Mahatma Ghandi

Today I’m writing about a topic that is rarely talked about in the leadership domain, especially amongst corporate leaders. Now, before you poo-poo the idea, please allow me to explain further. 

In my opinion, forgiveness can’t be ignored, because to do so is to defy a natural law like gravity. Forgiveness is one of the primary foundational ways of being for extraordinary leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Jesus and Ghandi. 

In the movie Spiderman 3, Peter Parker dreams of murderous vengeance against the man who shot and killed his Uncle Ben. When the ooze of unforgiveness attaches itself to him, it changes his Spiderman costume to black. His Aunt May, a model of forgiveness, has very wise, prophetic words for him:  Vengeance is a poison that can “take us over and turn us into something ugly.”

 What Peter eventually discovers is that like his Spiderman suit, vengeance isn’t something that can be easily put on and taken off at will. Knowing he has to be free of it or be lost forever, he has enough insight to seek out a way to be freed by reaching out to God. 

The depiction of Peter’s desperate wrestling with the ooze suit doesn’t promote the notion that forgiveness comes easy. Once he’s finally free there is a ritualistic washing. Though the ooze suit is gone, vengeance still remains and is looking for another victim. 

Like Spiderman, I discovered how anger and unforgiveness can turn from servant to enslaver. A few years ago I was involved in a long, exhaustive dispute, and after some time I realised the personal and financial cost was too high. My anger and bitterness that had begun to consume and control my life began to take on a life of its own. I became highly anxious, I wasn’t able to sleep at night, and my health started to deteriorate. Like Spiderman, I barely resembled the contented and calm person I used to be. Finally, when there seemed to be no way out, I became very tired and extremely frustrated and felt like giving up. 

But somewhere in my desperation I remembered the verse “Settle matters quickly with your adversary … or it will cost you your last penny.” That strong inner voice helped me to let the issue go and forgive, and I immediately felt a huge sense of relief and freedom.

To be clear, forgiveness doesn’t mean accepting of the grievance or that any party is right or wrong. It means letting go of the ego’s need for revenge and to be right in order to make the other party wrong.

My experience of forgiveness involved voluntarily and intentionally replacing negative states of anger, fear and unforgiveness with a more constructive state associated with empathy. I was able to reach forgiveness through the following five steps: 

1.  Recall the hurt:  This was easy for me as I had yet to deny my daily suffering.

2.  Empathize:  I was able to empathise and see the issue from the other party’s viewpoint.

3.  Unselfishly offer the gift of forgiveness:  I remembered that many times I harmed or offended others who later forgave me.

4.  Publicly commit to forgive:  I told my family, my advisors and others that I had let the issue go.

5.  Gentle reminders:  To stop backsliding into anger, I had to constantly remind myself that I had forgiven.

There are many benefits of forgiveness. In his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman reveals that forgiving someone we’ve held a grudge against reverses the biological reaction. It lowers our blood pressure and heart rate, the levels of stress hormones, and lessens pain and depression. Many people also feel less hurt, and report a substantial drop in physical symptoms of trauma like poor appetite and sleeplessness. 

Forgiveness generates a restored sense of personal power that may pave the way for future reconciliation. 

Thanks much for reading this post. I invite you to share your comments on this topic as it applies to your personal life and workplace.

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