The Transformative Power of Forgiveness in Leadership

These times are so uncertain
There’s a yearning undefined
People filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?

My will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness,

-Don Henley,“Heart of the Matter”

What word in our human language is so powerful when acted upon that it can dissolve anger, crumble away resentment, and literally change lives?


It doesn’t mean giving in. It doesn’t mean forgetting what happened. And it doesn’t mean that what another person did was acceptable.

Forgiveness goes beyond that.

It’s an acceptance of what took place – not an agreement – and a moving beyond it. When we let go of our hurts, we break the bond that holds us to the person (or circumstance) that hurt us.

Without that resistance, that grudge, we can create a space for healing, positivity, and success.

And for leaders, working in an environment free from the dark cloud of non-forgiveness creates a workplace that can foster greater success and fulfillment.

Forgive: It Has Great Power in Leadership & Life

Nominated for a Nobel Prize, Project Forgive founder Dr. Shawne Duperon noted the positive effects of forgiveness in the workplace, benefits that all authentic leaders strive for.


  • fosters a workplace environment where there is no judgement or condemnation for mistakes, thereby raising levels of productivity and encouraging a more engaged workforce
  • encourages higher levels of creativity that generates effective problem-solving & greater teamwork
  • attracts higher levels of talent, notably from millennials, who thrive in team atmospheres & will make up 70% of the workforce by 2024

Of course, it’s totally human to make mistakes. We all do it all the time.  Thing is, we can hold onto our grudge of ourselves or others, or we can see it for what it is:  just another human being doing what humans do.

Duperon explains that when we can move beyond not forgiving, it enhances the workplace in many areas.

“When fostered in business and leadership environments, you cultivate greater loyalty, adventurous creativity, and increased productivity,” she added. “Leaders make mistakes all the time. At least the good ones do,” explained Duperon.

When We Forgive, We Give

Without forgiveness, anger thrives. Grudges are held…and justified.

When we forgive, we give someone a chance to do better – without the negative cloud of anger hanging over their every move. Forgiveness releases both us and them.

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
-Lewis B. Smedes

Sometimes stereotyped as a “feminine” leadership attribute, forgiveness is a powerfully positive trait that both genders of leaders should cultivate. Writing in Forbes, Manpreet Dhillon notes that of the other feminine leadership traits, such as empathy, collaboration and cooperation, among others, forgiveness is one of the most critical to nurture. She offers a few suggestions to incorporate forgiveness in the workplace:

  • Emphasize all the good that a person does, instead of focusing on the mistakes.
  • Discover why a person made a mistake. Many times, we assume we know. Ask.
  • Remember that generally, people are good at heart.
  • Talk with the person and learn how/why the mistake was made – and how it might be corrected in the future.
  • Self-reflect: Might you be judging people too critically, while overlooking their positive traits?

Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter notes that for a more positive future, leaders must forgive past wrongs.

The best leaders forgo the temptation to take revenge on those who may have worked against their climb up the ladder. “The most important aspect of making mistakes is to own them and learn from them so we don’t repeat them. This is how we move forward, rather than staying in the past,” Kanter notes.

Incorporate Forgiveness in the Workplace

Conflict goes along with the job of being a leader: it’s inevitable. Smart leaders know how to capitalize on the opportunity which conflict presents – the chance to work through difficulties, thereby developing closer relationships – and, from those, more connected and more productive teams.

A great leader knows the power of forgiveness and makes it an everyday part of the job. Others, however, may be tempted (as some people are) to hold and nourish a grudge.

Grudge holding and ‘making people pay’ for their mistakes have no place in leadership. Mahatma Gandhi summed it up succinctly:

“An eye-for-an-eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

One of my beloved professors, Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, writing in HBR, notes that unfortunately for many leaders, revenge is more the practice than forgiveness, explaining that we have an innate sense of justice that serves as a way of protecting ourselves. How ironic, though, that revenge actually ends up hurting us more than others.

The flip side, notes Kets de Vries, is that revenge only breeds more revenge. “When you cannot forgive the people who have hurt you, these feelings become a mental poison that destroys the system from within,” he noted.

According to Kets de Vries, studies have shown that the venomous effects of revenge and hatred even negatively affects our immune systems. Additionally, he notes, not being able to forgive fosters depression, hostility and anxiety, and is linked to premature death.

Be a Better Leader Through the Power of Forgiveness

Leaders – and our entire world – need to practice the power of forgiveness.

It is not always easy. Especially in this crazy world we live in where by and large higher-level values and behavior seem to have been swept under the rug.  Perhaps societal (and political, unfortunately) influences have touted successful leaders as hard and unforgiving, but not forgiving only fosters anger, resentments and hurt feelings, hardly a foundation upon which a healthy, inclusive workplace atmosphere is cultivated. Forgiveness is a key component of a heart-centered leadership approach.

Forgiving doesn’t condone wrong behaviors or actions. After all, we can’t change what happened, but we do have a say in how we accept and move past it.

Forgiveness gives us that space to breathe, move forward, let go, and learn from mistakes – a valuable skill we all need to nourish.

Anger makes you smaller, while forgiveness forces you to grow beyond what you were.
-Cherie Carter-Scott

For a thought-provoking burst of leadership inspiration delivered fresh to your inbox each Tuesday, consider signing up here for our free Weekly Bold Moves.

Leave a comment