Leadership Should be Graceful and not Vengeful

In Les Miserables Victor Hugo shows the transforming power of grace and forgiveness contrasted with the legalistic quest for justice and vengeance. Eventually forgiveness overcomes vengeance, but a main character (Javert) could neither give nor accept forgiveness and it destroyed him. In this sense, forgiveness is as much about leaders giving up their right to vengeance as it is about giving the gift of forgiveness to others.

Grace, Humility and Forgiveness not Retribution

It’s interesting that when mistakes occur inside organizations, would be “leaders” sometimes seek vengeance rather than resolution, particularly when they’ve been hurt in some way. Instead of forgiving, they get angry, seek revenge and demand justice that makes offenders pay. Of course, payment is extracted by hurting careers, assaulting character or even excluding someone spitefully. Regardless of the form, it still comes from an unforgiving heart, which causes relational rifts. You can’t trust someone who chooses not to forgive. Unfortunately, according to Business News Daily, just 40% of workers trust their bosses. Yet, high trust organizations outperform low trust ones by 2.5 times in revenue growth.

Building trust requires leaders to recognize that people have flaws and everyone makes mistakes. Since folks spend half of their waking hours at work, at least some mistakes will occur there. Fixing blame and demanding retribution renders a person incapable of leading or inspiring others. Leaders who maximize potential, also give individuals freedom to take risks and make mistakes without being lambasted every time they try something and fail. Like the Bishop in Les Miserables, leaders who are effective in transforming followers and maximizing their potential, extend grace and tolerate mistakes. When leaders do that, followers usually feel safe enough to trust them and take risks. Forgiveness builds trust and draws people together; retribution diminishes trust and separates people, while destroying the person who refuses to forgive. Leaders are able to move past mistakes, give up retribution and thereby free up an individual’s potential to prosper the organization.

Admitting not Controlling

Leaders must also be willing to humbly admit mistakes, which requires a leader’s trust in the integrity and goodwill of others not to violate that trust. When that happens people usually respond in kind, because they receive an honest view of the leader. For example, Stan Gault was a premiere CEO of the 1980s and 1990s. At Rubbermaid he helped generate 40 consecutive quarters of earnings growth. After completing that turnaround, he did the same at Goodyear. A “Forbes” article suggested that Mr. Gault was a controlling “tyrant.” He responded jokingly that while he can be a tyrant, he’s also a “sincere tyrant.” However, even this self-proclaimed tyrant humbly expressed the danger of too much ego (BTW I found tyrant hard to believe after hearing his philosophy of leadership). He noted the importance of leaders being willing to admit mistakes:

“No one is always correct or has all the bright ideas. I don’t think one has to encourage conflict, but you also cannot shy away from it. Poor information originally used to support a hypothesis may have changed…unexpected changes in the market or competition and therefore, what was correct back a few months ago may not be the appropriate course of action today. You have to be willing to step back and say things have changed and we must change our direction and not get hung up emotionally. That you can’t afford. Sometimes your ego won’t permit you to either admit you made a mistake or that you should be changing course.”

Finally, eliminating ego requires humility on the part of leaders, and that humility begins with grace, forgiveness and admitting mistakes. Is it hard? Yes! Is it appropriate? Always!