When Leadership Requires the Power of Forgiveness

I recently experienced a painful betrayal. It reminded me of this article I wrote some time back.  Reviewing it was cathartic to me.  I hope it is to you as well.

Painful betrayal whether it occurs at work or in a leader’s personal life has the potential of distorting personal interactions and the leader’s interpretation of events.  Because a leader’s primary work is with people and because a leader depends on others to execute critical components of strategy the potential of distance and distortion in interpersonal relationships compounds with the scope of responsibility a leader carries. It behooves a leader to keep relationships as well as tactics and strategies current.

Place a leader’s scope of interpersonal relationships into a global corporation and add the challenges of cross-cultural communication and multinational socio-political realities and possibility of experiencing evil grows exponentially.   For example my friend who lost a trusted manager to terrorist activity faced evil.  The CEO, whose daughter is kidnapped, tortured and killed under the auspices of terrorist activity faces evil. The manager who is held until a bribe is paid faces evil.  The director whose trusted friend engages in a Machiavellian manipulation of political allies to oust him or her from their position faces evil.

There are times every leader find themselves in the middle of difficult conversations filled with accusations and counter accusations, angry words, hurt feelings and painful betrayals.  Leaders who face distorted interpersonal relationships and evil face tangible offenses and real pain.  It is not a matter of being tough enough to anticipate betrayal, loss, or risk – this all comes with the territory of leadership.  It is a matter of how a leader or person facing the aftermath of evil recovers from their experience in a way that strengthens rather than destroys them.

Facing Conflict with Piercing Honesty

I was lecturing on leadership ethics to graduate students in Kenya the year following their disputed presidential election.  As part of these lectures I include a section on the research on forgiveness as a means of combating evil and bridging across distorted relationships.  As the lecture unfolded painful stories of loss emerged from the class (made up by the way of the two primary parties in the dispute). These leaders had lost family in the turmoil that ensued following the election.  They sat in the same room with those who by association were responsible for their loss.  There are times when the need to vent pain requires a place in which leaders can be vulnerable enough to describe their pain and find both a safe place to unload and a strategy to replace the reaction of revenge. Knowing how to work through conflict is not a common skill. Two inadequate alternatives often manifest themselves when I talk with leaders.

On the one hand the motivation and skill needed to have a tumultuous conversation is often lost in the morass of pain and anger. Somehow a mis-belief enters common thinking that to be civil (or in the church world to be Christian) is to be nice in a Pollyanna sense rather than in the true definition of the word.  Civility (good character and reputation; sensitive discernment) must include the skill to engage tumultuous conversations that refuse to avoid the issues or behaviors that minimize or damage the common good.  The fact is that without the commitment to the civility that presses for the common good one may fall to the entrapment of evil’s banality.  The term banality of evil was framed by Hannah Arendt whose analysis of Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961 showed that while a dozen psychiatrists had certified Eichmann as “normal” only showed that the source of evil may be commonplace.  Eichmann had sent millions of Jews to concentration camps during World War II.

On the other hand it is easier in our mobile society to simply disengage the source of discomfort or pain and simply move on.  The question I ponder is how does a person engage in a bifurcation of moral judgment so as to assume that the attitudes and behaviors that person exhibits in one context escape moral scrutiny in another?  The fact is that unresolved conflict and pain follows us to every new context and creates a lens or bias in how we view the actions of others.  Soon even the new context exhibits the failings of the original experience. Does this mean that deep violations in relationships are always reconcilable?  No. I could not engage a class on ethical decision making without also facing my own potential to engage in the kinds of behaviors my students decried as victims – there were victims on both sides.

The challenges of evil; ordinary evil, dreadful pleasure of hurting others, deception, bureaucracy or sanctioned destruction is not simply a problem elsewhere it is a potential of human behavior that every leader must consider.

Let’s Talk about Accountability for a Moment

Wherever people are involved the choice to do good or evil exists. People do not always choose the good. I have experienced the pain of betrayal by leaders, I have comforted those who experienced the trauma of sexual abuse, I have sat in the hospital with women beaten by their boyfriends or spouses, I have cried with children whose father killed their mother, I have wept with spouses betrayed by the sexual affairs of their partner and I have stood in the grief and pain of my students in Africa whose entire families were massacred in political rivalry.  I have experienced the betrayal of insecurity and banal evil myself as a leader. There are victims of evil. There are victims of poor choices.

So, what does accountability look like?  What does the quest for justice look like?  Does it look like a quest for admission of guilt? Does it look like a quest for apology?  I affirm all of these as desirable. But each of these quests for justice or righteousness or an admission of guilt will not occur when one is silent or simply slinks away.  The strongest confrontation of evil or poor behavior is to call it for what it is.  The Apostle Paul’s encouragement to the Romans is instructive;

14 I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.  (Romans 15:14, NIV)

So who is accountable to make the first move toward change?  Paul simply leaves it in the second person, “you” and lets the reader feel the full force of responsibility to act differently. Regardless of whether you are the victim or the perpetrator, you are responsible to make the first move toward actions that identify injustice and pursue justice.

I understand the pain I hear when talking to leaders who have suffered evil.  I was once caught in the court case and needed to secure my own attorney to protect myself from a third party and my own organization.  These parties were engaged in legal action over an insurance claim on property damage.  I had initiated the original claim as an act of stewardship for the property.  When my organization refused to pay the full insurance claim I was told by my boss to secure my own attorney.  I found myself in a defensive position against an organization I had helped build. My rage and sense of betrayal festered into bitterness.  I figured that if a fight was what was desired that I would oblige and adopt a scorched earth policy toward the organization’s other leadership.

I met with an attorney who listened to my story of betrayal and mismanaged insurance funds. She agreed that I had been horribly aggrieved then said she would take my case if I could answer one question.  It was nice to be affirmed in my pain and my sense of revenge was encouraged by her expressed willingness to take up my cause.  “What is the question?” I asked.

“What is God doing in this situation?”

The attorney may as well have hit me between the eyes with a bat – the response would have been the same.  I was stunned. I sat there in silence. I was a spiritual leader of a national program, a professor of leadership, a trusted friend and mentor of other leaders and all I could think in that moment was how I wanted revenge.  Since I had no answer the attorney suggested we meet again when I could answer the question and then we would map out a legal strategy together.

I was still reeling from the meeting with the attorney when I met with one of my graduate school mentors.  I repeated the painful details of my experience and Bobby listened attentively.  He interrupted before I could complete the saga and said, “I have seen this before Ray.  Leaders work in imperfect organizations. That is why we need effective and godly (morally aware) leaders. You have a choice as a leader – you are at a boundary time. You can choose to grow or to plateau in your potential and capacity development.  If you are going to grow you must choose to identify the boundary and then forgive those who have injured you.”

“I need to forgive? They need to provide restitution for my lost wages and legal defense!”  I respected Bobby but I was a little miffed at his suggestion that my response to others actions was the critical key to identifying what God was doing.  Bobby didn’t flinch at my intensity.

“I am not suggesting you forget or ignore the pain of what has occurred Ray.”

“Well what are you suggesting?” I asked.

“I am suggesting that in your present state you won’t see how this event can positively shape your future and your effectiveness as a leader until you choose to forgive and begin to see things from God’s perspective.”

As we talked I discovered that I did not understand either the process of forgiveness or its power.

What Forgiveness Is Not and What it Is

Craig Johnson, professor of leadership studies at George Fox University notes that forgiveness is not:

  • Forgetting past wrongs to move on
  • Excusing or condoning bad, damaging behavior
  • Reconciliation or coming together again (forgiveness opens the way to reconciliation, but the other person much change or desire to reconcile)
  • Reducing the severity of the offenses
  • Offering legal pardon
  • Pretending to forgive in order to wield power over another person
  • Ignoring the offender
  • Dropping our anger and becoming emotionally neutral

I wrestled with these misconceptions about forgiveness and I see others wrestle with them as well. Johnson quotes Robert Enright of the University of Wisconsin to define forgiveness as;

…a willingness to abandon one’s resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her.[1]

The definition carries all the biblical aspects of forgiveness I was familiar with in a theological sense.  Forgiveness includes the recognition that the victim has suffered a real injustice; that forgiveness is a choice that involves emotions, thoughts and behaviors and that forgiveness can be offered regardless of the offender’s response.  The fact is that forgiveness is a process that identifies a real problem.  Forgiveness recognizes the high price of carrying resentment and bitterness, works to understand (not condone) the actions of the offender in order to break the cycle of evil rather than pass it on.  Finally forgiveness renders the outcome of seeing a deeper meaning in the events that have occurred and the realization on the part of the victim of their own need for forgiveness in life.  Knowing this as a detached concept and living it as a leader in the middle of the fight is not the same thing.

Working at a Crossroad

Leaders work at the crossroad of moral decision daily.  We listen, we empathize and we try to point those in our organizations in the direction of legal, ethical and moral justice.  How powerful would it be if more and more leaders caught in the painful throes of interpersonal conflict and the experience of evil would exercise the power of forgiveness?  How revolutionary could a company or organization become in today’s global environment if we lay hold of the dynamic of staying in tumultuous conversations rather than running from them?

Walking through the pain of my own forgiveness journey and walking with other leaders through their journey encourages me about the powerful potential for deep personal and social change forgiveness can bring. So how does forgiveness break the retaliatory cycle of evil?  Enright, Freedman and Rique (1998) suggest that forgiveness unfolds in four phases.

Uncovering Phase

The attorney with whom I talked skillfully led me through an evaluation of my own psychological defenses evident in my desire for revenge.  I was so enraged that I could barely articulate the reasons why.  I had to confront my anger and release rather than harbor my rage.  I was ashamed at my apparent helplessness in the face of the organization’s concerted attempt to railroad my position in an effort to save a few bucks (odd that the cost of the legal fees eventually exceeded by 4 times the amount of the original insurance claim).   The confrontation I engaged with the attorney and my mentor helped me see that I was living in a rehearsal of my pain rather than engaging my own future as a leader. While the event permanently altered the course of my career the reality was that forgiveness alone could open my eyes to the potential opportunities the irrevocable change would in fact provide.

Decision Phase

Bobby challenged me to look at my situation with different eyes (a different perspective).  In his taxonomy of leadership development my situation was a common means of expanding capacity in leaders who exercised forgiveness.  The same was true for my students in Kenya.  As they moved from a quest for revenge to an admission of their loss and a query about their future they experienced the same change of heart I had that day in Bobby’s office. They became willing to consider forgiveness as an option and determined to forgive the offenders of the atrocity they had experienced.   Remember this is not the same as excusing or condoning the behavior of the offender.

Work Phase

That day in the classroom we worked to reframe the experience of those leaders who had faced such horrendous loss – many of them were exposed to the other side of the political rivalry and the losses incurred by enemies in the conflict for the very first time. They began to see the wrongdoer (i.e., each other) in a new light.  They saw each other from the perspective of their unique context.  For the first time they experienced a twinge of compassion for the offenders (i.e., each other).

I remember encountering a regional vice president from my organization during my own work phase in the act of forgiveness.  We saw each other for the first time since the initiation of court action months after I had left the organization.  We embraced in a bear hug – each having seen the pain faced by the other.  It was one of the most startling and moving experiences I have ever had. We talked about mistakes both sides had made, the injuries those mistakes and intentional posturing had inflicted and then we offered forgiveness to one another.

The work phase is a process of acceptance and absorption of the pain.  It is significant because up to this point pain is fought against or denied and suppressed so that it sneaks out in unconscious actions of revenge and retaliation.  Without forgiveness the experience of evil typically reproduces itself so that the victim becomes a perpetrator.

Deepening Phase

The question of the attorney (what is God doing) was not an attempt to sidestep real issues in the guise of religious pompousness – it was a catalytic question that forced me to find meaning in what I had suffered and in the process of forgiveness I was then willing to engage.  This is the essence of a deepen phase it is the final step in leaving a boundary time with a clear idea of a new future.

As I described the process of forgiveness for my students that week in Africa they realized that they were not alone in their suffering.  This realization is part of the deepening phase and it set the stage for their own transition from a primarily negative affect to the realization of a new purpose in life because of the injury they faced as leaders.


The social-scientific study of forgiveness is a relatively new field.  But so far it shows great promise in helping leaders absorb and diffuse evil.  Global leaders in today’s highly interdependent economies have ample opportunity to experience evil. The reality is that all of us face the choice daily in our operations to be people who act as perpetrators of evil (either by our practiced distance from the sources of evil we see but do not address or by the pain we inflict on those we consider enemies).  If our organizations are really going to thrive, if they have impact for the common good then forgiveness is a skill and discipline every leader must engage as part of achieving their full potential.

[1] Craig E. Johnson. Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publishing, 2009), 116.

6 Replies to “When Leadership Requires the Power of Forgiveness”

  1. Very in-depth look into a variety of issues surrounding forgiveness. Thanks for your insightful and deep personal work. When you have time it would be great to grab a cup of coffee. Blessings, James C. Stephens

  2. […] Leaders develop in hind sight through distinct processes and hurdles. Smart leaders use the power of hindsight as a means of foresight to persevere in their darkest hours because they know there is transformation on the other side if they keep up a learning posture and if they exercise the most important developmental leverage of all – forgiveness (see http://raywheeler.wordpress.com/2011/06/11/when-leadership-requires-the-power-of-forgiveness/). […]

  3. Ray this may be some of your best work. I had this very experience about three weeks ago when challenged to admit the pain and not excuse the actions. It perhaps was the most freeing action I have taken next to my own salvation and pardon from sin. Great work Ray, I will certainly share this.

    1. Mark, thank you. I appreciate the feedback and the encouragement. Share as much as you like. I would love to give this as a presentation to more groups. The last presentation I did was to a group of professional coaches and they saw the application immediately – well except for one who got hung up on my resume and background in ministry. He did not have a good night…the presentation was chasing him.

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