CEO Insider

Why forgiveness is a vital part of your leadership style

Wendy Born

In unprecedented times we often see extraordinary things.  On a daily basis we are bombarded in the press with the good, the bad and the ugly in us all.  We’ve developed a new language, we’ve created a new normal and we’ve behaved in new ways.  Sadly though, what hasn’t changed is the need for us to find someone to blame, to pin it on, to make an example of, or to make us feel like someone, somewhere is accountable for something.  When Daniel Andrews, Premier of Victoria announced that Melbourne and the Mitchel Shire would commence Stage 3 restrictions in July, one of the first questions he received from a reporter was if he would make an apology to the public.

Blame is also common in organisations with too many great careers damaged because of an unforgiving boss or leadership team. In most cases, the employee is tarnished due to some error that is somehow unforgivable to those above. Many organisations often say they have a culture of accepting mistakes and supporting failure, yet often leaders in these companies don’t walk the talk.  The 2017 Australian Workplace Psychological Safety survey found that 56 per cent of employees agreed with the statement, ‘If you make a mistake at work, it is often held against you’, and that only 34 per cent of respondents feel safe to take risks at work.

Why forgive

Some years ago, I recall a CEO telling me how he had had his wallet stolen.  When I responded with horror to his story his response was that the person obviously needed it more than he did.  I was amazed at his forgiveness to someone that had done the wrong thing and also his calmness, composure and resilience to the injustice of his situation.  This person had an enormous amount of respect as a leader in his organisation and community and his career was long and full of achievements. In a Harvard Business Review study of 84 US companies focusing on the level of compassion and forgiveness held by the CEOs, they found that companies with a CEO who had higher levels of these characteristics outperformed their peers by almost 500 per cent.

When we create an environment that is forgiving for our people we see increases in innovation, creativity and problem solving.  Studies completed by Amy Edmondson author of The Fearless Organization, consistently found that the highest performing teams often make the most mistakes.  Additionally, through creating a psychologically safe environment people feel comfortable to share their views and ideas and this is actively encouraged by leaders.

Employees want the psychological safety to be able to voice their opinions, thoughts and ideas, as well as provide input into the solutions to problems. In Leadership in the Age of Personalization, Glenn Llopis argues that when employees are asked what they think about a problem and are able to safely provide input into the solutions, without being judged, they feel incentivised to do more.

Building forgiveness into your leadership

Here are some ways to help develop your forgiveness skills:

  • Reflect on times when you’ve made a mistake.  How did this feel for you and what did you learn from it?  Connecting into your own experiences helps to build empathy for others.
  • It takes more energy to be angry and annoyed so shift your focus to how you can conserve your energy by forgiving others.
  • Consider what you can learn about yourself from the action of forgiving someone else. This helps you to identify your own learning opportunities.
  • Ask how you can all work to fix the problem in a collaborative way rather than apportioning blame.  Again shifting the focus to a more positive outcome.
  • Put it into context by asking “is this the worst thing that’s ever happened?”.  In most cases it’s not worth a reaction to it.
  • Always debrief the issue with the person to reinforce any possible learning and future potential.

Through including forgiveness in your leadership style you can build a strong cohesive team that is empowered to make mistakes, is innovative and creative, engaged and incentivised.  A team you’d be proud to take the blame for.


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Wendy Born
Wendy Born helps leaders maximise their talent and strengths to achieve extraordinary results. As an engaging facilitator, coach and speaker, she works with executives, senior leaders and leadership teams to create high-performance organisations. Wendy Born is the author of Raising Leaders and The Languages of Leadership, both published by Major Street. Wendy Born is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on LinkedIn.