31 March 2022 18:14:13 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

The power of forgiveness in leadership

The infamous slap at the Oscars made more news than the awards. It should have been about dark horse favourite Coda winning best picture, Troy Kotsur, the deaf actor, winning best supporting actor, and Jane Campion winning the rare recognition as a woman director. Instead, it became all about the slap.  

If you’ve been living under a rock these past few days, here is a quick recap. Comedian Chris Rock was on stage and made a rather tasteless joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s bald head. She suffers from alopecia, a skin condition that leads to loss of hair. She did not take the joke well, and her husband, celebrity-star Will Smith, stormed onto the stage and slapped Chris Rock. While Chris was clearly out of line for the joke, Smith did far worse by hitting him.  

Leaders in business fall prey to the same temptation — to lash out, to be provoked and behave immaturely, to hold grudges and conduct malicious campaigns against others.  

When a leader does this, he loses credibility. Much time, energy, and focus are lost when leaders refuse to forgive. Business meetings become battlegrounds. Healthy debates are replaced with bitter arguments and violent disagreement. What is being said is ignored and who is saying it becomes the rationale to react.  

Camps start forming as the teams take sides. It is a lose-lose situation. While no business school would have ever taught us this — the capacity to forgive becomes one of the most important values each of us aspiring leaders will need to embrace. Our success depends on it. Our happiness depends on it. 

What is real power?

One of the reasons leaders strike out is because they believe they have the power to do so. They use their formal rank in the organisation to make things difficult for the victim they have gone after. They hold back privileges, delay promotions and in subtle and not so subtle ways show that they will use their power to get back.  

There’s a beautiful scene in the West Wing, one of my favourite TV series. Actor Leo McGarry is the chief of staff with a history of grappling with an alcohol problem. That news is leaked to the media.  

On investigation, the leak came from an internal staffer, Karen Larsen. She has clearly betrayed his trust and is promptly fired by Sam, the legal counsel. She drops in on her way out to see McGarry. The carton full of her stuff is in her hands.  

McGarry chats with her and realises that her motivation to expose him was from her own experience of having an alcoholic father. It was a misguided but well-intentioned effort by her to ensure an alcoholic does not drive important decisions that affect people’s lives.  

McGarry tells her: “What you’ve done has caused a lot of problems for me, the President, the administration, and the country…but I also think it was not a little bit brave…so why don’t you head back to your seat, unpack your carton and let’s both give each other a second chance.”  

It’s an outstanding act of forgiveness by a man in power. Real power — he demonstrates — comes from caring and forgiveness. 

In the encounter between Chris Rock and Will Smith, it is Chris Rock who came across as the stronger man. He did not react emotionally, he kept cool and calm and later even refused to file charges. He came off as the better man and the better role model (of course apart from cracking the joke that was in poor taste in the first place). 

Building bridges

I’ve shared the scene from the movie Beautiful People before — how some African tribesmen trap monkeys by putting a small fruit in a small hole in a tree or on the ground. A monkey saunters over, puts his hand in and grabs the fruit.  

He could easily be free if he lets go of the fruit, but he doesn’t. He holds on and soon is caught by the hunter. We do the same thing. We hold onto grudges and hurts, perceived slights, and insults — magnifying and multiplying them in our heads and our hearts little realising that by doing so, we trap ourselves.  

Our unforgiveness becomes like a toxin flowing through our own veins. We think that by holding back forgiveness we are hurting the other person but in reality, we do enormous damage to ourselves. 

Edwin Stanton went to special lengths to humiliate Abraham Lincoln when they first met as lawyers — Stanton being the senior and more famous one. He even called Lincoln the ‘”long-armed ape.” Yet, six years later when Lincoln as President had to fill the crucial role of War Secretary, he let none of the past come in the way of giving the role to Stanton.  

In doing so, he won him over not just as a highly competent cabinet member but as a friend. When Lincoln died, Stanton wept bitterly for days at the loss of a dear friend. That friendship grew out of Lincoln’s capacity for forgiveness.  

Lincoln realised he would only harm the country and his own capacity to lead, if he didn’t choose the best man for the job. He didn’t let a past humiliation come in the way of forgiving and gaining an ally and a friend. 

Each act of unforgiveness we hold onto becomes a link in a chain we forge for ourselves. Like Marley in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol — this becomes something that weighs us down — affecting our happiness, our leadership impact, and our decisions.  

Nelson Mandela is another great role model. After being kept for decades in captivity by his white foes, he chose to forgive them, even to the point of retaining white members on his personal security team. He chose a path that helped a nation heal by building bridges instead of barriers. Every business leader must emulate him. 

Why forgive?

We must forgive because we are constantly being forgiven. Each of us though often unconscious of it is making mistakes, causing hurts every day and we are recipients of forgiveness — from our spouses, our children, our colleagues. If we as leaders are full of flaws, we must be more understanding and forgiving of the flaws we see in others.  

As Martin Luther King would say: “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.” When we are conscious of our own failings, more cognizant of the times we have been forgiven, we are less likely to sit in judgement over others, we are less prone to hold grudges and engage in petty battles. 

There are both types of situations — giving and asking it. When someone else has done something wrong or made a mistake, then we need to give forgiveness. There is also the situation when we have made a mistake, hurt someone. Here we need to reach out and ask forgiveness.  

This becomes difficult for many of us. Our own ego comes in the way, and we baulk at the thought of saying “sorry”. Sometimes we believe we were in the right and therefore feel justified in not asking for forgiveness. But forgiveness is not about who was right or wrong — forgiveness is asked and given because somebody was hurt. 

Leaders will realise that the ability to forgive and seek forgiveness is empowering. It is difficult — but for the leaders with the courage and conviction to walk the path — it becomes both liberating and a powerful light by which they lead.