The Servant Leader and the Exercise of Forgiveness in the Context of the Organization
Part I

by Dr. Jeffrey D. Yergler


In Management and Grace, Dr. Yergler creates a context of a concept and practice of grace and management that holds incredible potential for significantly enhancing morale and performance. What sets the application of grace apart from being yet another management tool is that it fundamentally speaks to and motivates the human heart at the deepest core level.

In Servant Leadership, Justice and Forgiveness, Dr Yergler refines the context and discusses how a servant leader must incorporate forgiveness as a leadership competency.

In this three part series Dr. Jeffrey Yergler continues his exploration of servant leadership and the application of forgiveness in organizations. The emotional, relational and spiritual expectations and deficits which people bring with them into the organization place incredible and often unreasonable pressures on those who lead and manage. It is the servant leader who is in a position to most effectively respond and intervene. (ed.)

The Servant Leader

Deep study of Greenleaf's (1996) definition of servant-leadership convinces me that leaders' discernment of what needs to be released in others is the single greatest catalyst of personal growth, maturity, freedom and autonomy (the latter quality I would call becoming a self-differentiated person). However, Greenleaf's definition sets up a conundrum because most leadership practices today are seldom about discerning what is needed by others but rather about buttressing what is needed to preserve oneself and one's agenda. So often the leader is concerned about style, methodology, data and metrics rather than how to cull and tease the best out of others. I believe that Greenleaf's definition of servant-leadership speaks to the moral responsibilities of the leader and the organization to grow and develop their people.

Leaders who feel that it is their responsibility to ensure the healthy functioning of people (personal growth, maturity, freedom and autonomy) within the organization are rare. Moreover, such altruistic leaders must reckon with the fact that their style, methodology and persuasiveness will never completely override the collective influence of people's negative and destructive behavior in an organization. Greenleaf's observation, when viewed from this perspective, was and continues to be brilliant. The servant-leader is one who understands that if you can grow the capacity of others to be healthy emotionally and relationally, then you will automatically grow the health of the organization.

One oft-unobserved component of becoming healthier emotionally and relationally within (and beyond) the organization is the practice of forgiveness. It is highly unusual to either witness or experience forgiveness in the context of organizational life. It is common to encounter arrogance, dehumanization, personal vendettas, and the withholding of grace. The toxicity of this type of organizational culture can quickly erode character and motivation, destroy esteem and suffocate joy.

Two important dynamics are at work when people who experience performance failure are automatically punished (called the judgment-punishment cycle) or when colleagues in positions of leadership and management become embroiled in episodes of hurt and betrayal, refusing to extend or receive either an olive branch or a fig leaf. First, those who have experienced performance failure without forgiveness are, in essence, denied a critical opportunity for personal transformation and deep growth. Second, leaders and managers who eschew any hint of forgiveness and remain firmly ensconced in their "right positions" fail to provide a fundamental intra-organizational example of servant leadership. Both consequences, though often hidden, are tremendously costly to the human spirit and organizational esprit de corp.

Furthermore, when leaders reject forgiveness as a vehicle for creating positive systemic change, they inadvertently keep the organizational system locked in a state of pervasive and chronic dysfunction. When a leader is unwilling to differentiate herself by choosing to exercise forgiveness, she perpetuates the typical organizational cycle of judgment-punishment. Is it any wonder why so many of our corporate institutions never experience change? Leaders focus on their leading and not on the health of the organizations they lead.

Though leaders are in an optimum position to demonstrate forgiveness, many resist due to ignorance, hubris or fear. This resistance, cumulatively speaking, is profoundly costly to the organization. Batstone (2003) observes that "directors who fail to direct and executives who fail to lead are at the root of what ails the corporate world today" (p. 22). Though directorship and leadership failure comes in many forms, it is particularly deleterious when those in charge fail to model forgiveness in their working relationships- upwardly, downwardly, or horizontally. While individual leaders are responsible for their behaviors regardless of the actions of others or the organizational pressures and expectations placed upon their shoulders, there are multiple reasons why leaders typically avoid and even fear being arbiters of forgiveness in their organizations.

As an organizational leader, I struggle with forgiveness. This resistance is not because I fail to understand the efficacious effects of forgiveness. On a cognitive and personal-experiential level, forgiveness has been a transformational influence in my own life. I understand how forgiveness can lead to freedom, growth, maturity and autonomy. Rather, the issue is that I fear that asking for and granting forgiveness in the context of the organization will undermine my power, competency and legitimacy as a leader, as well as lower the performance level of others. These two fears are typically strong enough to overrule any embryonic desire to exercise forgiveness even though I believe that doing so would ultimately be generative to the recipient and the organization. The perceived diminishment of power, along with the fear of increasing organizational lethargy, slams the door shut. These performance and power drivers can easily trump any tendency to being a leader who practices generative and restorative forgiveness.

Leaders and Barriers to Forgiveness - Asking

Five critical issues create complexity around the issue of leaders and forgiveness asking. First, leaders who ask for forgiveness are choosing to make themselves vulnerable to others - a terrifying proposition indeed! Most leaders with whom I am familiar (including myself) are virtually paralyzed at the mere notion of being so open. Vulnerability, the capacity to reveal one's wounds, weaknesses, fears or susceptibility to failure, is incredibly difficult for any leader, and for some, altogether impossible. Seeking forgiveness allows others to see the leader's soft underbelly. Furthermore, asking for forgiveness is a de facto revelation of a leader's inadequacies, fears, ineffectiveness and lack of competency. Whether with supervisors, peers or direct reports, leaders place a great deal of themselves on the line when they engage in forgiveness-asking.

A second reason, directly related to the aforementioned, is that forgiveness-asking can be perceived by leaders to render null and void the balance of power between the leader and the led. Here, forgiveness-asking eliminates the one-up one-down position common in most organizational hierarchies. This single action puts everyone, regardless of title or responsibility, on a level playing field called our shared humanity. It obliterates barriers such as gender, ethnicity, power or position and openly acknowledges that leaders, like the led, often fall prey to selfishness, anger, fear, arrogance, indifference, protecting and concealing. Forgiveness necessitates a rearrangement of the top-down power structure typically found in most organizations.

Thirdly, the leader, in seeking forgiveness, must extend trust to the one petitioned, whether or not that trust can be guaranteed. Forgiveness-asking requires that the leader exercise a willingness to trust (though not blind trust) the recipient with delicate information, trusting that her transparency, along with her professional reputation, will not be misinterpreted, mishandled or pandered as mere conversational fodder in the "corporate public square." This is a gargantuan barrier and high stakes bet for many leaders because forgiveness cannot hinge on guarantees. For me, coming to grips with my lack of control after the fact stops me dead in my tracks, rendering the action of forgiveness-asking, at one and the same time, potentially perilous as well as potentially transformational. However, for many leaders, the risk of being hurt or betrayed is sufficiently intimidating to eliminate forgiveness as a viable option.

Fourth, leaders must embrace humility if they are to become forgiveness-askers. Humility means that leaders see themselves for who they really are and not as others see them (typically as omnipotent and omniscient). Such humility is tantamount to Toto pulling the curtain back to reveal that "the great and powerful Oz" is merely a man who, though knowing how to pull critical levers at critical moments, is no different that anyone else. Humility acknowledges and embraces our strengths and limitations. As Merton (2002) observes, "Our real choice (as leaders) is between being like Job, who knew he was stricken, and Job's friends who did not know they were stricken too - though less obviously than he" (p. 108). Only those leaders who know they are "stricken" like everyone else are capable of seeking forgiveness from others they have wronged.

Finally, forgiveness-asking can be difficult for leaders because of organizational systems that discourage this kind of self-differentiated behavior. Forgiveness-asking is a form of self-definition which can be at odds with organizational expectations of sameness regarding leadership behaviors. When leaders engage in this kind of redemptive behavior they, as Friedman (1999) notes, are shifting their orientation about relationships "from one that focuses on techniques that motivate others to one that focuses on the leader's own presence and being" (p. 3). Greenleaf (2002) supports this sense of personal responsibility on the part of the servant-leader by noting that "the servant views any problem in the world as in here, inside oneself, not out there. And if a flaw in the world is to be remedied, to the servant the process of change starts in here, in the servant, not out there" (p. 57).

Leaders and Barriers to Forgiveness - Giving

Giving or granting forgiveness, like forgiveness-asking, has its own inherent risks and barriers. When a leader forgives another (especially if it is downward forgiveness-giving) it can create the appearance of a management style that is soft, permissive or indulgent. McGregor (2001) sees soft management as leading inexorably to an overemphasis on harmony leading to "indifferent performance" (p. 180), a leader's worst nightmare and greatest fear. The apprehension that forgiveness-giving naturally leads to performance mediocrity is a legitimate, but overly controlling, concern.

A second barrier for leaders is that forgiveness-giving reveals heart and compassion for others. This level of vulnerability is an anathema to the mindset of many leaders. In fact, it is often believed that leadership, if it is to be effective, must be indifferent and impervious to the emotional well-being of others. Drucker (2004) has argued that "loneliness, distance, and formality…are [the executive's] duty" (p. 116). According to this line of reasoning, it is the bottom line that matters, and all feelings and emotions must be sacrificed toward that goal. Effective leaders cannot, must not be bothered with the insignificant issues and challenges of relationship maintenance and the display of care and concern beyond performance and duty obligations. It is not wise for a leader to be self-revealing and transparent toward those he leads.

A third barrier, closely related to the preceding one, is that leadership often means brandishing toughness, indifference and disdain toward weakness. Good leadership and management are associated with strength, firmness and strict accountability. It is believed that effective leaders lead through intimidation and pressure. To forgive others is diametrically opposed to operating from a platform of strength and intimidation. Many leaders would, indeed, ascribe to Machiavelli's famous words, "…it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with" (p. 76).

The Servant Leader and Forgiveness

While the experience of forgiveness between two professional equals is powerful in and of itself, the transformational nature of forgiveness is exponentially increased when it is exercised between the servant-leader and those who are under the influence of that leadership. The intuitive servant-leader understands that "There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led, is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share" (Greenleaf, 2002, p. 50) (italics mine). The servant-leader grants and asks for forgiveness because of what that act produces in both parties and subsequently in the organization itself. When exercised by the servant-leader, the total impact of forgiveness is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Given the potential redemptive power of forgiveness, it is extremely unfortunate that so few leaders and managers understand and trust the deep impact that forgiveness has upon the human heart and its transformative effect within a corporate culture. Refusing to incorporate forgiveness into one's leadership is, in reality, a failure of nerve (Friedman, 1999) and courage.

This paper purports that a servant-leader must incorporate forgiveness as a leadership competency if the benefactors of that leadership are to experience true transformation into servant-leaders themselves. "Failure to forgive," according to Greenleaf (1996), "rankles, distracts, reduces energy, [and] stifles [the spirit]" (p. 97). My thesis is based on three critical assumptions. First, since 9/11, there has been a rising tide of fear and anxiety within western culture. Massive cultural shifts locally and globally are eroding cultural stability and predictability, which then fuels anxiety and a chronic sense of existential foreboding. The feelings of dislocation resulting from this deterioration of long held social, political and global constructs are being manifested through personal insecurity, anger and retaliatory behavior between individuals, within communities and between nations. We are a people who are daily "faced with the conflict between the necessity to conform and the imperative to maintain one's own unique individuality and integrity of personality. The forces that would destroy the integrity of personality are sometimes powerful and pervasive" (Greenleaf, 1986, p. 82). Palmer (2004) calls this cauldron of pressure the "blizzard of the world," which "swirls within us as fear and frenzy, greed and deceit, and indifference to the suffering of others" (p. 1). Friedman (1999) labels this rising tide of anxiety "cultural regression" which sabotages leaders who "try to stand tall against the raging anxiety-storms of our time" (p. 1).

Individuals are carrying their culture-induced fragility, incongruence and anomie into the organizations in which they work. This silent desperation, so keenly felt in our culture, infects organizations by fueling systemic dysfunction, structurally and relationally, since those who work within an organization expect that it will provide meaning, safety, and predictability from the cultural maelstrom. The emotional, relational and spiritual longings, coupled with the emotional deficits, which people bring with them into the organization place incredible and often unreasonable pressures on those who lead and manage. The position of this paper is that the servant-leader, focused as he is on the person and performance, seems to be in a perfect position to most effectively respond and intervene. Given the cultural regression of our time, servant-leaders are called and compelled to do just that!

As products of western culture, our organizations are filled with people who are inwardly insecure, fearful and highly anxious; they are also reactive, suspicious, and protectionist. Already jaundiced by their cultural, relational and familial frustrations, it is here, within the organization filled with performance pressures, production expectations, competition, and selfishness that any nascent hope for safety, stability and community are often met with disappointment (Mitroff & Denton, 1999). It is this sense of disappointment within the organization that gives rise to acts of injustice, retribution, violence, sabotage, indifference and isolationism. These are the work environments that drain and degrade, rather than give life and instill hope.

Though organizational environments can (and do) destroy lives, they also represent the "field of play" into which servant-leaders are invited to lead and act redemptively. If a servant-leader is responsible to grow people by helping them "become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous and more likely themselves to become servants" (Greenleaf, 1991, p. 7), then exercising forgiveness is the aperture through which servant-leader qualities can be cultivated in the lives of others. The work of forgiveness is most effective when it encounters the "raw materials" of the shattered human spirit: anxiousness, disappointment, shame, fear, anger and resentment.

In responding to Albert Camus' admonition that personal change comes only through encountering, rather than neglecting, barriers to growth, Greenleaf (1991) notes that personal growth results when "one is asked…to accept the human condition, its sufferings and its joys, and to work with its imperfections as the foundation upon which the individual will build his wholeness through adventurous creative achievement" (p. 6). Only as we begin with the reality of our own fractured and divided souls can we begin to move toward the possibility of wholeness (Palmer, 2004).

The critical work of forgiveness necessarily draws a servant-leader into the crucible of vulnerability with those he or she serves and leads. To ignore or fear this opportunity is to significantly limit the growth and effectiveness of the servant-leader, the individuals who surround the servant leader and the organization itself. To put it another way, to neglect this level of involvement is, in reality, a failure of foresight and a failure of courage so necessary for leadership. As servant-leaders, refusing to leverage the work of forgiveness in the lives of others within our organizations constitutes, in the words of Kim (2002), a failure "to understand our organizational complexity, to articulate a compelling vision, and to make the foundational choices to guide…people" (p. 20).

Furthermore, for the servant-leader to neglect so great an opportunity and need is to fail to see the larger theological value of our institutions, their inherent imperfections and yet their potential of experiencing redemption(Specht & Broholm, 2003, p. 16).

References and Readings

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Batsone, D. (2003). Saving the Corporate Soul & (who knows) Maybe Your Own: Eight principles for creating and preserving integrity and profitability without selling out. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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Deming, W. (1994). The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, 2nd Ed. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Drucker, P. & Maciariello, J. A. (2004). The Daily Drucker. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

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Fraser, S. (1988). My Father's House: A memoir of incest and of healing. New York, NY: Ticknor and Fields.

Friedman, E. H. (1999). A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix. Bethesda, MD: The Edwin Friedman Trust/Estate.

Greenleaf, R. (2002). Servant Leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power & greatness. New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Greenleaf, R. (1991). The Servant as Leader. Indianapolis, IN: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center.

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Kim, D. (2002). Foresight as the central ethic of leadership. Indianapolis, IN: The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership.

Machiavelli, N (1992). The Prince. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing.

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Mitroff, I. & Denton, E. (1999). A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America: A hard look at spirituality, religion and values in the workplace. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Merton, T. (2002). Seeds. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Merton, T. (1958). Thoughts in Solitude. New York, NY:Farrar, Straks and Giroux.

Northouse, P. G. (2004). Leadership Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Novak, M. & Cooper, J. W. (Eds.). (1981). The Corporation: A theological inquiry. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute.

Novak, M. (1990). Toward a Theology of the Corporation. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute.

Palmer, P. (2004). A Hidden Wholeness: The journey toward an undivided life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Quinn, R. (1996). Deep Change: Discovering the leader within. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Smedes, L. (1984). Forgive and Forget: Healing the hurts we don't deserve. New York, NY: Pocket Books.

Specht, D. & Broholm, R. (2003). Toward a Theology of Institutions. Indianapolis, IN: The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership.

Tutu, D. (1999). No Future Without Forgiveness. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Welch, J. (1986). Fools Crow. New York, NY: Penguin Books

Wiesenthal, S. (1969). The Sunflower: On the possibilities and limits of forgiveness. New York, NY: Schocken Books.

Dr. Jeffrey D. Yergler lives in University Place, Washington and is Principle for Integer Leadership Consulting ( Dr. Yergler can be reached at or by phone at: 253-230-1024.

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2005 by Jeffrey D. Yergler. All rights reserved.

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