The Servant Leader and the Exercise of Forgiveness in the Context of the Organization - Part II
by Dr. Jeffrey D. Yergler


In Part I of this series Dr. Yergler discussed how 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.

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.

In Part II of this series Dr. Yergler very skillfully leads us on a very mindful and powerful personal journey of how we can create worth and value first, and then create authentic organizational communities where a legitimate and sustainable desire for performance thrives. (ed.)

Operational Definitions of Forgiveness and Redemption

In the context of this paper, the word forgiveness must be seen from six vantage points. First, forgiveness is the act of releasing others from the guilt, shame, or deserved retribution they have merited through their own intentional or unintentional actions toward another, which have resulted in hurt, anger, animosity and relational polarization. Second, exercising forgiveness is an act of accountability. While forgiveness releases and liberates, it also requires change and invites maturity (self-differentiation or autonomy). Third, forgiveness is a conscious choice that is made toward another who needs to be forgiven, whether or not he is aware of this need. Fourth, forgiveness requires the capacity to contextualize the person in need of forgiveness and the event that created the situation requiring forgiveness.

Smedes (1984) makes it clear that contextual understanding must precede the act of forgiveness and, furthermore, makes forgiveness possible in the first place. Understanding the macro context of the person and circumstances provides insight into what created or led up to the event. Fifth, forgiveness means that the servant-leader must see himself in light of his own humanity, fragility and imperfection. Servant leaders cannot see the humanity of others unless they first see and embrace their own. To put in another way, "differentiation (in others) cannot be implanted from outside; it can only be freed from within…the facts that leaders want to come forth from their followers must first be nurtured within" (Friedman, 1999, p. 31).

Finally, forgiveness is a supreme act of empowerment of another. To forgive is to intentionally choose to raise-up another from the quagmire of personal failure and alienation from self…something which Tutu (1999) understands with acute clarity when he observes that our dehumanization of others "inexorably means that one is dehumanized as well" (p. 35). To forgive is nothing less than a heroic and virtuous act of re-humanization or re-empowerment.

Within the organization forgiveness is truly counter-cultural because it contradicts typical organizational behavior that demands sameness and conforming. In the world of the servant leader, to forgive defies all human constructs requiring punishment and negates the mechanistic employment of any rubric based on the belief of lex talionis. While forgiveness practiced in the context of the organization may not negate the necessary consequences resulting from destructive behavior, forgiveness nonetheless remains a bold contradiction of the commonly held social-organizational laws of fairness and justice.

Forgiveness is also redemptive; it seeks to restore another to an original (positive and healthy) form and/or function which have been altered and maligned by the introduction of pain and hurt. The act of forgiveness which seeks to absolve is, at the same time, redemptive in that it seeks to restore. Yet while both are important, there is a logical order. A servant- leader cannot create an environment of redemption unless there is first the exercise of forgiveness within relationships.

While this redeeming effect of forgiveness applies to the individual, it applies in particular to the larger relational and structural components of the field/system affected by the actions of another. When a servant-leader employs appropriate and responsible acts of forgiveness through individual relationships, a larger systemic impact is released within the organization. This effect could be called the collateral impact of forgiveness. Servant-leaders indirectly create changes to organizational process, policies and systems through their own forgiveness-based actions.

The Brokenness We Each Bring to the Organization

Forgiveness responds to a fundamental reality that lives somewhere within every human: we know ourselves to be imperfect and flawed, insecure and vulnerable regardless of organizational, social, ethnic, gender or economic differences. In the organization we tend to fabricate barriers and walls that keep others from discovering our vulnerabilities. These barriers also keep us locked inside. We use every ounce of energy possible to keep those barriers impenetrable. Not only do attempts to hide our weaknesses keep us imprisoned, they also create an amorphous, yet pervasive, feeling of internal fear - fear that we will be found-out or revealed for "who and what we are." Servant- leadership's exercise of forgiveness, borrowing from Deming's (1994) parlance, actually drives fear (and anxiety) out of the workplace by acknowledging our flawed and imperfect humanity and encouraging risk-taking, self-valuing and the building of trust.

Forgiveness sends a message that the organization is a safe place, while at the same time it expects results and high performance levels. Forgiveness responds to failures not as ends in themselves but as a means to a much greater end of adding value to the person, the business community and beyond. In the exchange of forgiveness between the servant-leader and the one served, something of great value is given away for the benefit of the person, first and for the organization, second.

Forgiveness creates a foundation for the growth of worth and esteem. Forgiveness must, first and foremost, be given and/or received for the sake of the person rather than for the sake of improving performance. While forgiveness seeks a positive response through changed/healed relationships, it can never be reduced to merely a leveraged transaction between the servant-leader and the follower. Ultimately, the giving of forgiveness sets loose a deeper, more profound, even transcendent, work within the person. Servant-leaders can have a monumental impact on the brokering or midwifery of this transcendent awareness as they live out the reality of forgiveness in their lives and through their leadership.

Why Forgiveness is Crucial for the Servant-Leader

Sustainable organizational change rarely begins with the organization itself. The real problem of organizational dysfunction, according to Quinn (1996) "is located where we least expect to find it, inside ourselves. Culture change starts with personal change. We become change agents by first altering our own maps" (p. 103). One of the reasons that the praxis of forgiveness in the organization is critical to the servant leader is because it requires the servant leader to experience forgiveness before he or she seeks to apply forgiveness in the lives of others. One cannot give away what one does not possess. The servant leader must understand that forgiveness, when personally experienced and rightly practiced in the context of the organization, creates an environment where people seek to thrive, improve and excel. This is an axiom of the praxis of forgiveness that is absolutely, positively counter-intuitive and therefore easily missed by most leaders.

By and large, people in any organization want to contribute and create value. Yet it is a fundamental truth that for people to contribute and add value to the organization, they must first value themselves and know they are valued. This should come as no surprise to any leader. The surprise lies in the fact of how value is communicated most effectively in the organization. There is no leadership or management practice that creates value in the human soul and psyche as effectively as the experience of authentic forgiveness.

Forgiveness has a marvelous and virtually unparalleled sustaining power precisely because it speaks to the intrinsic worth of the person. It speaks worth to the soul, the wellspring of hope and promise. It addresses core values of esteem, dignity and worth which are often called into question in the face of one's own individual and communal failures. It is the most powerful (and perhaps the most ethical) means of incentivizing available to the servant-leader. The best way to increase the value of a worker's contribution is for the worker to be valued and then invited to live into his fullest sense of self. This is where the value-added of forgiveness begins. When the servant-leader accesses and affects the intrinsic source of motivation within a person, there is an inevitable impact on performance. Perhaps more importantly, relationships are strengthened and the organization, as community, becomes more just, humane and redemptive. Without question, the servant-leader is a powerful catalyst when it comes to shaping (healing, restoring and empowering) the person and, in the process, strengthening organizational identity.

Why Servant-Leadership and Forgiveness is Critical at the Senior Level

The coupling of forgiveness and servant leadership must be a core value among senior leadership if it is to have any impact, credibility and utility within the organizational culture. Senior level management cannot establish forgiveness as a core-value within the culture if they do not value and understand the work of forgiveness within themselves. If senior leadership chooses to exclude or significantly undervalue forgiveness as a core-value in all down-line management relationships, it will be impossible for forgiveness to be embedded into the organizational culture. This very point is made in Friedman's studies of leadership influence and organizational change (Friedman, 1999).

The "yes" to forgiveness as a corporate value has a better chance of emerging when the level of pain, frustration, sabotage and professional stifling within the culture begins to show itself. As systemic acrimony and disillusionment become apparent, along with growing concern about the rising tide of organizational dissonance and the manner in which this dissonance infects corporate identity, morale and performance, servant-leaders will be among the fist to ask difficult questions about the fundamental nature of corporate-wide management beliefs and practices.

However, not only is it difficult evaluating management philosophies that buttress toxic and corrosive management practices in a given culture, it is equally difficult identifying management attitudes, such as the absence of or indifference toward forgiveness, that are inimical to organizational health and destructive to personal esteem and worth. An organization which lacks the presence and practice of forgiveness within its senior leadership core makes it prey to the emotional instability and regression of the larger culture.

As Palmer (2004) wisely notes, when leaders maintain divided and disconnected lives, they make the ground around them unstable for others. Conversely, when senior level leaders become servant-leaders and embrace forgiveness as a component in their exercise of leadership, this action becomes the "tipping point" where the tectonic plates of organizational systems begin their arduous, but redemptive, process of shifting. This is where we find the true servant-leader: at work in the trenches, seeking to become a more holistic leader for the sake of self, the sake of others and the for the sake of the good of the organization.

Why Forgiveness is Decisive for the Employee

We are prone in western culture to operate with an excessively individualistic orientation toward others. We easily cut ourselves off from the relational requirements of community and, as a result, cut ourselves off from the relational lubricant and salve of forgiveness and grace. It logically follows, then, that when we find ourselves in an organizational community by economic necessity, we may not possess the requisite relational tools to make community work. The good news is that what one does not learn in a culture of anonymity can be learned within an organization where servant-leaders model forgiveness and invite others to experience personal growth, maturity, freedom and autonomy.

Healthy organizations, created by courageous servant-leaders, build communities out of which emerge authentic relationships, an appreciation for organizational stewardship and a concern for justice and grace. When servant-leaders understand the intrinsic worth of people and the value of building empowering relationships and communities within organizations, the organizations themselves become redemptive environments. Desmond Tutu (1999) provides an excellent description of the relational richness that so profoundly characterizes the dynamics at work within redemptive communities:

"A person is a person through other persons." It is not, "I think therefore I am." It says rather: "I am human because I belong. I participate, I share." [This] person is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are (p. 31).

Frankl (2000) expresses the same thought about relationships and community, but in a slightly nuanced form, when he observes that "On the human level, I do not use another human being but I encounter him, which means that I fully recognize his humanness; and if I take another step by fully recognizing, beyond his humanness as a human being, his uniqueness as a person, it is even more than an encounter - what takes place is love" (p. 93). I would further add to Frankl's thoughts that what takes place in this unique encounter is nothing less than authentic change.

It is a fact that the human person ultimately longs to be known, valued and esteemed. Much of what we do in life is motivated by this deep inner drive to discover who we are, why we are here and to experience unconditional love along the way. We do this by attempting to gain a sense of our transcendent worth and existential purpose (a personal teleology) and direction in the immediate and long-term contexts of our lives. Leaders can either assist in that journey or become impediments by ignoring or suppressing the transcendent pursuit within the heart. Such leader behavior can be maximally deleterious. Frankl (2000) affirms that the emergence of neurosis is often the result of a repressed search for a relationship with transcendence. "Repressed transcendence," notes Frankl, "shows up and makes itself noticeable as an "unrest of the heart"" (p. 73). Palmer (2004) calls the depression which results from oppressing or ignoring one's own truth "the uprising of the soul" (p. 36).

Only as we come to terms with the transcendent presence within can we successfully function and live, value others and thrive within community. Again, Frankl (2000) states that "The more [man] forgets himself - giving himself to a cause or another person - the more human he is. And the more he is immersed and absorbed in something or someone other than himself the more he really becomes himself" (p. 85).

Servant-leaders are those who comprehend that performance, whether life or work related, is maximized not through external drivers such as organizational environment, money, or positional status alone but especially through self-valuing and relational connectivity, both of which communicate a profound sense of contribution, partnership and belonging to the person. Create worth and value first, and you create authentic organizational communities where a legitimate and sustainable desire for performance thrives.

References and Readings

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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.

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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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