The Courage to Risk Forgiveness

By avoiding revenge and retribution, superintendents can nurture relationships so vital to their effectiveness by George A. Goens

Forgiveness and reconciliation are not just ethereal, spiritual, other-worldly activities. They have to do with the real world. … because in a real sense, without forgiveness, there is no future.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu


The room was dimly lit as the shadows from late afternoon bled through the windows. The two figures huddled together talking as confidants do, in quiet whispers.

“How did this happen? What went wrong?” the older man said to the younger.

“I don’t know. They just blew it.”

“Blowing it is going to put us into a deep, deep hole. It’s embarrassing. There’s gonna to be hell to pay for this.”

The younger man listened intently, then asked, “What are you going to do?”

“Listen, you better learn one thing. In my position, I don’t get mad; I get even. We’re not taking prisoners on this one. What goes around comes around.”

Vital Relationships

Popular culture celebrates leaders as tough-talking people who do things to get results. Leaders are in control and make things happen. They are not wimps; they play hardball. They are tough, commanding. They reward friends and punish enemies. They prefer to be feared rather than respected. They exact a price when things go wrong.

Leadership, however, is more than talking tough and “doing” things. The crux of leading and leadership is relationships.

Relationships can have positive or negative energy and they can be stimulating or sapping. How productive are relationships based on fear and retribution? How productive are relationships based on forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation?

Relationships are fragile and sensitive. They are connected or disconnected, fluid or rigid, trusting or suspicious, close or distant, formal or informal. Leaders build, stimulate and nurture relationships or they neglect, abuse and destroy them.

Superintendents have several different kinds of relationships, all requiring ethical and moral care. A primary relationship is the relationship with themselves and the kind of leader they want to be. They must determine what is authentic, genuine and true to whom they are. Leading with integrity is the key.

Another relationship superintendents have is to others: to the students and adults in the school system and to the people in the community. Do these relationships bring people together or do they segment and Balkanize them? Is the whole greater than the sum of the parts or vice versa? The answer to these questions lies in whether relationships are built on trust and compassion or suspicion and control.

Finally, a third relationship concerns the schools and stewardship—bringing about the best for the schools and making them better than they were. What actions enhance and heal the organization and community and which place them in jeopardy? Some relationships build capacity in an organization and others destroy talent and potential, depleting energy and strength.

Risking Forgiveness

Conflict is a part of all of these relationships. Conflict is the soil in which school leaders work. Sometimes conflict is aggressive and other times it walks on the velvet slippers of change and innovation. It can create tension, misunderstandings, hard feelings, confrontation and anger. And negative conflict can cost school leaders their credibility and their personal and professional relationships.

Conflict takes its toll in labor-management disputes and rancor unsettles the school district boardrooms. Hostility snaps the calm of school classrooms. Conflict causes pain and many times loss, whether in life, wealth or efficacy. People become imbalanced, tentative and unsure.

In this unsettling environment, school leaders can be hurt, offended, irritated, deflated, disappointed, infuriated and even depressed. In the tough-talking mythology of leadership, the “I don’t get angry, I get even” quote has become clichéd conventional wisdom.

But getting even requires retribution and all the negative energy it carries. Stereotyping, dehumanizing and blaming all set the stage for retaliation. Retribution builds barriers and frequently produces a cycle of active or passive aggression. It begins a cycle with no end.

To truly lead, one must forgive, and forgiveness requires a big risk. Healing seems so benign and soft—far from the flurry of flags or saber-rattling bravado. The courage to forgive, however, may be the catalyst that unleashes the talent and energy for school systems and people to meet their full potential.

Contemporary literature espouses that leaders should be risk takers, yet the risks are not defined. One of the greatest risks for leaders is to forgive. Forgiveness, whether in our personal or professional lives, takes strength and courage.

The irony in our society is that striking back and seeking retribution are perceived as strong and bold. The healing act of forgiving is frequently the magnet for derision and mockery and often is falsely perceived as an act of weakness. Forgiveness is often misunderstood. It is confused with condoning, approving, disregarding, or excusing actions and behavior.

Forgiveness, however, is about recognizing conditions as they are, complete with all the hurt, disgust, anger or other emotions, moving beyond current circumstances and not carrying the past into the future. It is about healing and leading based on noble principles and values that appeal to the best in us.

Ethical Forgiveness

In this context, forgiveness has to do with ethical forgiveness, not theological forgiveness. It is based on one human being forgiving another, not on the theological view of forgiveness by a deity or higher being.

Ethical forgiveness has five characteristics.

First, forgiveness involves wholeness—bringing things together and fulfilling a sense of integrity among individuals within the organization. Wholeness involves mending breaches, uniting fragments, and creating a sense of oneness, connection and completion.

Second, forgiveness requires a sense of inner balance and peace. A person who seeks revenge and retribution is not at peace but embroiled in the turmoil of conflict. The resulting hurt can preoccupy and drive a person’s life and priorities and relationship with others.

Peace comes with balance, optimism and confidence that there is a better future. Peace is a reciprocal result of forgiveness and is related to the third characteristic—release.

Seeking revenge allows the emotions and hurt of past actions to dictate future actions. Release means accepting the situation and moving into the future. Leaders have a vision of the future and act to construct bridges to better times. They leave behind the walls of what went before and do not live with illusions and paranoia.

Fourth, forgiveness generates openness in relationships by eliminating obstacles and re-establishing broken or disabled connections in communication, understanding and emotion. It eradicates the organizational cancer of blaming others that is so pervasive in dysfunctional workplaces.

Finally, forgiving is healing, which means that people retain and recapture their integrity of purpose and principle in their relationships and behavior. Without forgiveness, there is no healing. Instead, the hurt from the conflict festers and the organization loses its strength and energy.

Healing is wholeness. A healed organization becomes whole again, with healthy, genuine relationships rooted in integrity and noble principles. People’s behavior must come from within them and not be driven by the people who injured them.

School systems cannot function if they are fragmented and re-living past hurts. Superintendents recognize the steps necessary to move schools into the future and to build their performance capacity so they can be successful.

Complex Situation

All superintendents have felt the sting of heart-pounding confrontations with board members, staff, parents or citizens. Sometimes things get personal and challenges to competence and integrity are spewed in the heat of the moment.

Or in meeting professional obligations, plans go wrong. Failure and disruption raise their ugly heads. In quiet and reflective moments, we often beat ourselves up through second-guessing, guilt and fear of not being up to the task.

In both these circumstances, there are choices. In the first, we can feel like victims and seek to turn the tables or we can react, not in kind, but in a way that opens doors. When people strike out, often they are calling out for understanding and care—someone to listen. Meeting fire with fire turns up the heat and can incinerate authenticity and self-respect.

In the second instance, superintendents can throw themselves out of balance by not recognizing that they are not perfect or in total control. Leadership is messy and strewn with unexpected and unseen emotions and dynamics.

The superintendency is not linear engineering. It is leading in a complex social context with multiple and conflicting expectations. Success requires doing what is right, being genuine and acting creatively.

Forgiveness is a creative act—an act of construction, not destruction. It re-creates and renews the connections among people, sometimes in new and different terms. The energy and understanding in these relationships are changed. Leadership and love are seldom seen in the same sentence. But as an act of love and not anger or disdain, forgiveness can transform and heal.

Why Forgive?

Superintendents should act in forgiving ways for several reasons:

* Integrity: Forgiveness is the foundation of what is good within us. The ability to live with integrity based on our ethical and governing principles requires us to forgive and live in the present moment so we can face the future.

* Relationships: Reality is grounded in relationships and relationships require people to forgive at work and at home. We cannot collaborate or cooperate without the ability to forgive. Forgiveness creates positive interactions. Dignity, respect and affection cannot exist in a ruthless and compassionless environment.

* Talent and Capacity: To use their full talent and potential, people need to feel a sense of efficacy, which requires a sense of wholeness and connection. Increasing the school’s capacity as a learning organization compels us to move beyond the intensity and emotions of conflict in order to fulfill our purpose. Creativity does not exist in an environment that is judgmental, callous and vindictive.

* Transformation: For leaders to help transform their organizations, they need to transform themselves. Leaders make mistakes and fall short, but they must forgive themselves before they can help the organization forgive on a broader scale. To be effective, leaders need balance and to be in balance requires forgiveness.

Leadership in relationship to others requires moving beyond tolerance to forgiveness. Being in distress, being in the past, being angry and being in a vendetta are destructive acts personally and organizationally. Settling scores does not appeal to the best in us. Responding in kind compromises integrity because it adopts the values of others and may be antithetical to our purpose and beliefs.

The great leaders of the past centuries forgave and took the ultimate risk of doing what was right, not what was popular. We can learn from Gandhi, King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marshall, Truman, Ford, Lincoln, Tutu, Mandela, Havel and from those who forgave us. They transformed the world through forgiveness—and they had the courage to follow it.

George Goens, a former superintendent in Wisconsin, is senior partner of Goens/Esparo LLC, P.O. Box 270768, West Hartford, CT 06127. E-mail: gagoens@snet.net