Unforgiveness is a selfish leadership choice

Every leader casts a shadow. Some leaders make deliberate choices which carefully shape the shadow they cast. Others just cast one. It was Larry Senn who first used the phrase “The Shadow of a Leader” in an unpublished 1970 doctoral thesis (find books by Larry Senn here). “The Shadow of a Leader” refers to the impact of a leader’s preferences, likes and dislikes, attitudes, values, choice of language, and ways of behaving shape the culture of an organisation. Every leader casts a shadow.  The leader’s shadow falls wherever he or she walks in the team or organisation. The bigger the light that is shone on the leader the stronger the shadow and the longer its reach. Employees will always look to the leader for the clues as to what is acceptable and what is not. The unforgiveness shadow is very long indeed.

Casting the Unforgiveness Shadow © Miroslava Kopecka | Dreamstime.com

Casting the Unforgiveness Shadow
© Miroslava Kopecka | Dreamstime.com

The unforgiveness shodow impacts on everyone who comes into contact with the person who holds it. A person may think unforgiveness is their own issue to deal with. They cover it up and try to get on as if nothing is different. They may even convince themselves all is well. But wherever unforgiveness exists in a team or an organisation it seeps into every relationship negatively affecting productivity and innovation at every level. In truth, I believe unforgiveness is ultimately a very selfish emotion, especially for a leader. Even more so for a Fourth Question Leader.

Three posts in a row on the subject of organisational forgiveness says something about how important I think forgiveness is to any organisation and to any leader.

The whole focus of a Fourth Question Leader is to work in the best interests of others. To care for others is the goal. The evidence of care anywhere, including in teams and organisations, is in the behaviours of people towards each other. Where a leader casts an unforgiveness shadow it is impossible to put the interests of others first. It is impossible to care for others.

Where a leader casts an unforgiveness shadow it is impossible to put the interests of others first. It is impossible to care for others.

The unforgiveness shadow is cast as a result of situations and break down in relationships which result in a residual sense of anger, resentment, mistrust, or any immediate negative emotional response when the other person is involved. More often than not these feelings originate in some experience where we believe our rights and reasonable expectations have been violated in some way. It is our sense of what is right and just which has been transgressed.

When you are leading a team or an organisation you cannot afford the luxury of casting the unforgiveness shadow. For a leader the unforgiveness shadow is selfish and can cripple leadership effectiveness. Selfish! Yes, I believe unforgiveness is a selfish emotional response in a leader. It is easier to hold onto a grudge than it is to let it go. It can feel good to be able to blame someone else for things which have gone wrong. These responses may feel good, you might even be right, but they are never productive. It is not possible for a leader to be fully committed to helping others be the best they can be and at the same time, hold on to unforgiveness. It is completely irrelevant whether or not the other person admits wrong doing, asks for forgiveness or holds on to their own sense of outrage and the resulting unforgiveness. When a leader holds on to unforgiveness he or she casts the unforgiveness shadow and everyone in the team or organisation gets less than the leader’s best.

When you are leading a team or an organisation you cannot afford the luxury of casting the unforgiveness shadow.

Leadership Unforgiveness Shadow © Miroslava Kopecka | Dreamstime.com

Leadership Unforgiveness Shadow
© Miroslava Kopecka | Dreamstime.com

The social experiments conducted by Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management showed that when people forgive they are more physically able and more positive. One of the researchers observed that the world looks less threatening to people who forgive than it does to those who have unforgiveness. You can see the implications for leaders for yourselves. The researchers hypothesis that unforgiveness comes from situations in which people feel a loss of power and control. When they make the choice to forgive it restores the balance of power and releases energy as a result freeing the brain from constantly reflecting on what has happened.

A leader can choose to cast a forgiveness shadow or choose to cast an unforgiveness shadow. The leader’s shadow may encourage unforgiveness or it may encourage forgiveness. A leader who chooses to make forgiveness a life habit will cast a shadow in the organisation which sets forgiveness as the way things are done here. So, for any leader to hold onto unforgiveness and, as a result, cast an unforgiveness shadow is a very selfish thing to do because it has a significant impact on others – whether the leader wants it to or not.

Takeaways

  • Every leader casts a shadow
  • The leadership shadow impacts on organisational culture
  • A leader can carefully and deliberately what kind of shadow he or she wants to cast
  • The unforgiveness shadow is very a selfish choice for a leader to make

Additional Resources

The Unburdening Effects of Forgiveness
Forgiveness
Leadership Through Organisational Forgiveness
Forgiveness as a Workplace Intervention: The Literature and a Proposed Framework
THE FORGIVING ORGANIZATION: A MULTILEVEL MODEL OF FORGIVENESS AT WORK
How Forgiveness Benefits Your Health: Forgiving Wrongdoers Can Expand Physical Fitness
The Servant Leader and the Exercise of Forgiveness in the Context of the Organization – Part III 
The Selfishness of Unforgiveness