Earlier today the HBR Blog Network ran a post by Rosabeth Moss Kanter titled “Great Leaders Know When to Forgive.” It begins:
Leaders must be firm and foster accountability, but they also must know when to forgive past wrongs in the service of building a brighter future. One of the most courageous acts of leadership is to forgo the temptation to take revenge on those on the other side of an issue or those who opposed the leader's rise to power.
Instead of settling scores, great leaders make gestures of reconciliation that heal wounds and get on with business. This is essential for turnarounds or to prevent mergers from turning into rebellions against acquirers who act like conquering armies.
After going through some compelling examples and citing General Douglas MacArthur’s line that “Revenge is not justice,” the piece included a line that slapped me: “If revenge is not justice, it is not strategy either.” Rather appalled, I found myself wondering, is knowing when to forgive all about strategy?
But then I started thinking about it some more and shrugged off my self-righteousness. I was taking the line out of context, as the article focuses mainly on making mergers succeed after some bitter negotiations. However, I believe it’s an important point to consider in three main ways.
First, let’s remove some of the negative connotations strategy can have in this context, as it implies we are doing something only because it will benefit us. Accept that leadership always involves a degree of that; after all, a leader is moving someone in a direction, towards a vision. I believe forgiveness does have an important strategic aspect in any sort of culture. For example, think about a school making a change in curriculum and the related pedagogy. It’s a messy, often unsettling process for many, and inevitably people are going to make some mistakes. (That can happen in even the best of circumstances.) If the leader wants to build something, she or he must allow that to happen and be understanding. Forget the notion of strategy, and forgiveness relies upon a degree of empathy. It helps to create a culture in which people feel understood and valued, and they can see themselves part of something larger and want to do well, whatever the objectives. Yes, I realize we are back to strategy, but with a focus on the human side without a sense of manipulation.
Second, great leaders not only must know when to forgive, but they also must hope their followers know when…and are willing to. A great leader is going to hold out challenging objectives, some of which entail risk. If the leader is really pushing things, there likely will be some failures, or at least loud hiccups. The leader’s passion also may hurt people, albeit unintentionally, and some difficult decisions may gall people. The messages can hurt. I’ve had supervisors deliver tough messages to me, and I had to move past my anger and forgive to utilize the valuable feedback.
The third is the most important. Forgiving is humane. It’s usually—always?—the right thing to do. After all, we all need to be forgiven at times. Kanter concludes her post with a wonderful commentary on what probably should be the ultimate goal of all strategy:
Those whose main motivation is to settle scores and get payback — to obstruct rather than construct — are on the wrong side of history. Their legacy is not rebuilding, but rubble. From (ahem) members of Congress to leaders in any turnaround situation, it's a lesson worth remembering: Taking revenge can destroy countries, companies, and relationships. Forgiveness can rebuild them.