More Forgiveness, Less Bitterness

 More forgiveness, less bitterness 


All about module 2

I know you might not believe me right away when I say what I am now going to say, but bear with me. After coaching and counselling literally hundreds of business leaders over the past 20 years or so, one of the personal factors that most hinders and obstructs personal growth and development is . . . BITTERNESS!

So let me explain

Many executives I have counselled have shared how they have had very damaging experiences with former colleagues or clients, where they feel emotionally scarred by something someone has said or done. They feel that they were unjustly spurned, attacked or vilified, and they have nor been able to forget or put the incident behind them. And the personal, emotional bitterness from this time abides. It’s not that it occupies front of mind every moment of every day, but when it is remembered, it brings up deep and disturbing feelings and can be very debilitating. Have you ever felt this way about anyone from your past? How does it feel when you reflect on it?

So what is the answer to bitterness?

Let me quote from one of the truly great men of present times:

“Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation and the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse . . . In forgiving, people are not asked to forget. On the contrary, it is important to remember, so that we should not let such atrocities ever happen again. Forgiveness does not condone what has been done. It means taking what has happened seriously and not minimising it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence. It involves trying to understand the perpetrators and so have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes and appreciate the pressures and influences that might have conditioned them . . . Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim . . . we will always need a process of forgiveness and reconciliation to deal with those unfortunate, yet all too human, breaches in relationships. They are an inescapable characteristic of the human condition.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness, 1999


Having lived for the first 50 years of my life in South Africa and through the agonies of apartheid and the joy of democratisation, I can bear witness to the power of forgiveness, exemplified by the Archbishop and, more startlingly, by Nelson Mandela himself. The great man showed remarkable forgiveness towards those who imprisoned him for 27 years. I can especially remember seeing him sitting down to tea in the home of Mrs Betsy Verwoerd, the widow of Dr Hendrick Verwoerd, the archenemy, the political father of apartheid in the 1960s. These initial acts of forgiveness prevented unimaginable bloodshed and years of political chaos, as has been evidenced in the northern neighbour, Zimbabwe, where forgiveness was not on the agenda, only revenge.

Forgiveness is not only for the religious and the saintly. In fact I know of at least 11 universities in the UK alone who are running “Forgiveness Projects”, looking at the value of forgiveness in all areas of society from the family to the office. I encourage you to Google “Forgiveness in the Workplace” and see how many articles you will encounter. When you join us on the “Power of 10” workshop, we will unpack this in some detail and look at the practical implications and actions that arise. But let me just whet your appetite by sharing a few thoughts.

Some of what we will be looking at here is from the work done by Kim Cameron (Back to Leading in Troubling Times) and especially the work entitled: Leadership through Organisational Forgiveness.



Has your team or company ever been through times of experiencing organisational harm, damage, trauma, or injustice?  Well if you have, one of the challenges facing you as a leader is to help the team (or organisation) to heal, replenish efficiency, restore efficacy and positive energy, and enhance resilience. Fostering forgiveness is one of the most effective mechanisms for achieving these outcomes.  Below is a brief summary of guiding principles for leaders relating to organisational forgiveness.

  1. Forgiveness is a universal human virtue. Almost everyday individuals offer forgiveness for offences or affronts in their interpersonal relationships. Likewise, virtually every religious, ideological or philosophical tradition advocates forgiveness.
  2. Forgiveness usually occurs in collaboration with other virtues such as compassion, humility, gratitude and hope.
  3. Forgiveness is not neutral. It does not necessarily require completely abandoning anger or resentment, nor does it require pardoning or dismissing the offence. It involves acknowledging and reframing negative feelings and attitudes.
  4. Forgiveness is not weak, cowardly, or a retreat. It is a gift that requires strength and the ability to create transformational change.
  5. Forgiveness fosters healing, restitution and restoration in both the giver and the receiver. Forgiving individuals experience positive outcomes such as greater life satisfaction, empowerment, self-esteem and faster and more complete recovery from physical and mental diseases. It also reduces anxiety, depression, and anger. Forgiving organisations experience more trusting alliances, social capital, humanity in the workplace, productivity, quality, customer care, and a sense of calling amongst employees.
  6. Forgiveness is active not passive. It involves not only the cancellation of negative emotions and attitudes, but also the development of positive emotions and attitudes.
  7. Forgiveness is not all or nothing. People differ in the motives and maturity with which they are able to forgive. So, for example 7 points on a continuum might be considered:
  8. We will forgive if we can punish the offender
  9. We will forgive is justice is done
  10. We will forgive if society expects it
  11. We will forgive if an authority or prevailing code demands it
  12. We will forgive if it re-establishes order
  13. We will forgive because we care for/love the offender
  14. We will forgive unconditionally no matter what the consequences.


Enlightened Leadership

Let me close with a reflection of what we might call “enlightened leadership”. The general consensus is that if our leadership is genuinely impact the lives of others in a positive way the following must be in place:

  • Self (who we truly are) must triumph over ego (what we present to the world).
  • Others before self
  • See the future before it happens. Was it Peter Drucker who said: The best way to predict the future, is to create it?
  • Beliefs become truth
  • The power of forgiveness is commonplace


Latest research from university programmes from Leeds and Nottingham universities suggests that forgiveness is clearly linked to things such as enhanced productivity, decreased absenteeism, and fewer mental and physical issues such as melancholy, anxiety and repeated headaches. Research also tends to suggest that this is because forgiveness reduces interpersonal stress, whereas lack of forgiveness negatively affects individuals, by aggravating syndromes such as depression, lack of self-esteem and grudge-bearing. And since it is a fact that many people who have had damaging interpersonal conflict still need to work together, forgiveness can be a most effective coping tool, a way to repair relationships and to repair trust – THE essential to high productivity.


 Written by Rob Gee | Senior Partner of The Living Leader | Power of 10

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