Leaders Who Can’t Forgive
December 5, 2013 Editor 0
I had a CEO in one of my leadership coaching seminars recently who seemed to be quite bitter about life. Whatever suggestion I would make, he would put a negative spin on it. Curious about his remarkable negativity, I asked him to tell more about himself. After a little bit of prompting, he was ready to talk about his life, a narrative that wasn’t very pleasant to listen to.
Clearly, I was dealing with a person who carried grudges, hanging on to grievances that should have been forgiven long ago. Whatever negative experiences he had, he would blame others for his unhappiness. He was not prepared to look at himself, and to take personal responsibility for his part in whatever conflicts, or events he was complaining about.
Mahatma Gandhi once wisely said: an-eye-for-an-eye only ends up making the whole world blind. How true his comment is. And it is especially relevant for people in leadership positions. Leaders have such an important effect on other people’s lives that their lack of forgiveness can create a climate where anger, bitterness and animosity prevent a team, an organization, a society, and even a nation from being the best they can be.
Of course, all relationships with others, whether friends, strangers, or family members, come with the risk of being hurt: your parents may have been tough on you, your teachers may have been unpleasant, colleagues at work may have sabotaged your projects, or your life partner may have been unfaithful. Anytime you let others come close you are vulnerable. And the most logical reaction to an insult or injury is to get even.
In a leadership position, the risks are magnified. Leading others means dealing with a maelstrom of relationships implying an enormous amount of emotional management. As a leader, you are operating in settings rife with strife, which if left unresolved, can become a festering drag on an organization’s effectiveness. People who cannot forgive get stuck into a downward spiral of negativity, taking everyone around them with them.
Good leaders, of course, are aware of how costly it is to hold on to grudges and how an unforgiving attitude keeps people from moving forward. Unfortunately, for far too many people in leadership positions, revenge comes more naturally than forgiveness. We 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 our brain, making us hard-wired to retaliate and seek justice when others hurt us.
From an evolutionary point of view, this behavior served a critical purpose. Tit for tat has is a 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. But it can also open a Pandora’s box of counter-reactions: revenge begets more revenge, which can be costly to your mental and physical health.
When you cannot forgive the people who have hurt you, these feelings become a mental poison that destroys the system from within. As numerous studies have shown, hatred, spite, bitterness, and vindictiveness create a fertile ground for stress disorders, negatively affecting your immune system. And, to boot, an unforgiving attitude is positively correlated to depression, anxiety, hostility, and neuroticism, and associated with premature death.
But why are some of us more likely to forgive than others and what differentiates them from those who remain vindictive and bitter? Taking a psychodynamic-systemic orientation to the study of leaders, I have found three features associated with a resistance to forgiving:
- Obsessional rumination: Unforgiving people spend their time obsessing about their pasts. Those subjected to rigid, autocratic parenting and to childhood abuse seem to be more likely to do this, contrary to those who were fortunate to grow up in a more benign and nurturing environment.
- Lack of empathy: Empathy is the evolutionary mechanism that motivates altruistic and pro-social behavior. Imagining and feeling what another person experiences- putting yourself in the other person’s proverbial shoes – allows you to consider the motivations of the transgressor, giving you a route to forgiveness. It is a skill that you learn early on. Children brought up by largely absent or abusive parents generally can’t develop the ability. For these people, forgiveness becomes extremely difficult.
- Sense of deprivation: Individuals who did not receive much attention and care as children often focus on what they do not have, and how they might get it. But when they get it, they continue to compare themselves 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.
I would not say that people who exhibit these behaviors—and are less likely to forgive—cannot be leaders. But they will not be the kinds of leaders that get the best out of their followers. The ability to forgive is an essential capability for any leader wishing to make a difference.
Of course, forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing unacceptable behavior; it is about healing the memory of the harm, not erasing it. When you forgive, you don’t change the past, but you can change the future by taking control of your destructive feelings instead of letting them control you, and creating a new way of remembering. 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.
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