Grace and Forgiveness – Essentials for Effective Leadership

Lessons from Les Miserables

I’ve had the good fortune of seeing both the movie and Broadway production of Victor Hugo’s, Les Miserables. It’s a moving story of both the healing power of forgiveness and the self-destructive nature of un-forgiveness and vengeance.

The story opens with Valjean being released after 19-years in prison for stealing bread. Homeless and destitute, he’s a hardened man. His fortune changes when a kindly bishop provides him food and lodging. Evidently, his kindness is of little consequence, because Valjean steals the Bishop’s silverware and flees. He’s soon caught by police, but the Bishop covers for Valjean and tells them it was a gift. This hardened and bitter man is transformed by the Bishop’s act of grace and forgiveness.

Valjean gives up his bitterness, moves away and leads a humble and transformed life. He changes his name, builds a successful business and becomes mayor of a small town. However, he’s allegedly violated parole and the vengeful police inspector Javert begins pursuing him. All is well until Javert arrives in Valjean’s town. He recognizes Valjean and plots to expose and capture him, but Valjean flees to Paris. The story takes an interesting twist as Valjean extends kindness to Javert, helping him escape from French revolutionaries.

How Grace and Forgiveness Can Transform Organizations

The story shows the contrast between Valjean who’s been transformed by grace and forgiveness and Javert who, being extended the same grace and forgiveness, is not transformed. While Javert’s relentless pursuit makes Valjean’s life miserable, eventually Valjean’s kindness overcomes the inspector’s lack of forgiveness. However, rather than respond in kind Javert commits suicide.

The point here is that forgiveness is possible only when leaders give up their right to vengeance. In that sense it is giving the gift of forgiveness to others. Javert couldn’t forgive (or receive forgiveness) because he couldn’t give up that right and eventually it destroyed him.

What I find interesting is when mistakes are made inside organizations CEOs or key managers sometimes act like Javert and refuse to give up their right to vengeance. That’s particularly true when their personal agendas have been hurt or sidetracked. Instead of forgiving the offending party, they get angry, seek revenge and demand justice in ways that make offenders pay. Of course, payment can be extracted by hurting the offender’s career, assaulting his or her character or excluding that person in spiteful ways. This can be true in nonprofit fundraising organizations as well as corporations. The methods may vary, but vengeance that comes from an unforgiving heart is destructive both to individuals and organizations.

For leaders to build long-term success, they must recognize that everyone has flaws and eventually they’ll all make mistakes. Modern day organizational Javerts who fix blame instead of fixing problems are incapable of inspiring others to greatness. Instead of leading they’d rather wield power and control people through fear and intimidation. However, that disrupts organizational momentum and damages what could be productive relationships.

Consultant Brian Fulghum shared his experience of introducing grace into international companies, Grace doesn’t mean we just blindly forgave everything and didn’t use disciplinary processes; rather it means that we had intentional, moderate, and “care-full” policies and processes that didn’t burn people, even when we had to let them go…practicing discipline not from anger but because it’s in peoples’ best interest…policies and procedures…that would not throw our staff under the bus in our pursuit of profit.”

Grace Gives the Freedom to Risks

Simply stated, leaders, who endeavor to maximize the potential of individuals and organizations, must also give people the freedom to take risks and make mistakes without being lambasted every time something fails. Like the gracious Bishop, leaders who endeavor to transform followers and maximize their potential, must be willing to extend grace and have tolerance for mistakes. As fundraising consultants, we remind leaders that it’s only then that people feel safe enough to trust, become vulnerable and take risks that are in the organization’s best interest.