The Servant Leader and the Exercise of Forgiveness in the Context of the Organization - Part III
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.

In Part II of this series Dr. Yergler very skillfully led 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.

In Part III Dr. Yergler discusses the servant leader and accountability, the transforming organization and a personal leadership style that is restorative and empowering. Being a servant-leader who intentionally incorporates the work of forgiveness into the total milieu of relationships and organizations, represents a holistic or complete response to the overall responsibility of leadership.

The Servant Leader, Forgiveness and Accountability

The organization, besides being a just and redemptive community, must also be a place of performance accountability and proper stewardship of organizational resources and finances. There are three dimensions of the servant-leader and forgiveness that must be seen from the perspective of organizational stewardship.

First, forgiveness helps servant-leaders hold employees accountable for the stewardship of the organization in terms of production quality and the return on the investment of assets. Though forgiveness must consistently be applied regardless of the person or performance, servant-leaders should always expect a return on the action of forgiveness (ROForgiveness).

Greenleaf (2002) held forgiveness and accountability in balance when he noted that "The servant-leader always empathizes, always accepts the person but sometimes refuses to accept some of the person's effort on performance as good enough" (p. 33-34). If forgiveness within the organization is not connected to personal and/or performance change, its application can be destructive to the employee, the servant-leader and the organization. Anderson (2001) points out that when forgiveness is used only as a "quick fix" and does not lead to personal and social renewal, it has essentially failed. Smedes (1984) agrees by saying that "there is no real forgiving unless there is first relentless exposure and honest judgment" (p. 127). Without accountability, the application of forgiveness can realize McGregor's (2001) archetypical description of soft management results. In an organization, the work of forgiveness should always result in a changed attitude and improved performance. In this sense, forgiveness is considered costly because it expects a response from the recipient. If forgiveness does not bring about changed behavior and performance, it becomes an expression of cheap forgiveness; while it is gladly received, there is no intent on the part of the recipient to change behavior patterns or performance levels. In this case, from the perspective of the servant leader's responsibility toward the person and organizational stewardship, the employee puts himself or herself in a very tenuous position.

Second, forgiveness keeps the servant-leader accountable for his or her own mistakes and errant behaviors. When a servant-leaders seek reconciliation because of their own actions, they are choosing to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of service to the greater organizational community. In so doing they broaden and deepen the capacity of the organization to be a place where self-sacrificing service is not only accepted, but highly valued. In no way is this a small or easy step to take for the servant-leader. On the contrary, it is exceedingly difficult. When servant leaders pursue forgiveness, they are clearly, as Block (1996 ) notes, "...willing to be deeply accountable without choosing to control the world…[this] requires a level of trust that we are not used to holding" (p. 6).

Third, to be more specific about accountability, there are two primary areas where forgiveness and accountability come into play within the organization: the violation of core values and organizational processes. The core values of an organization are the organization's essential and enduring tenets. Often these core values include relational boundaries and expectations, how the work involves respect and justice between human beings whether they are internal colleagues or external vendors, clients or customers. When there is a serious infringement upon core values, when someone has failed to honor the injunction to provide respect and justice to people, the servant-leader must be especially insightful about the best course of action. Whether or not forgiveness is requested or granted, the servant-leader must determine if the employee is capable of more virtuous and morally-grounded behavior. To retain a toxic employee, under the rubric of forgiveness, is foolish, dangerous and irresponsible.

Forgiveness and organizational processes involve the financial benefit or cost of the employee to the organization. Performance mistakes resulting in financial loss for the organization can be exorbitant. Though forgiveness is given when a mistake is made regardless of the cost to the organization, the servant- leader must assess the ongoing liability involved in retaining the employee. Forgiveness, though it as an act of personal and organizational stewardship, must also "pass the test of the marketplace. It must be practical and economic" (Block, 1996, p. XXII). In the case of costly mistakes, forgiveness must also include an evaluation of individual competencies and organizational fit. Unintended mistakes, though always forgivable, are in some cases not worth the risk of a repeated failure. Even in reassignment or termination, forgiveness by the servant-leader remains an act of grace and can foster new beginnings for the person and the organization.

Because forgiveness is profoundly restorative, empowering and generative of the human spirit, it must be considered an unparalleled worth-and-esteem creating action that transforms the person at the deepest levels of self-identity, regardless of whether or not they stay with an organization. Those experiences where I have grown most have always resulted from personal crises and pain meeting up with justice and forgiveness. When it comes to our failures, what most of us know is the punitive nature of the law when, in actuality, what causes the greatest growth is truth coupled with grace.

The Servant-Leader and the Transforming Organization

We have affirmed up to this point the importance of forgiveness as a core leadership component in the life of the servant-leader. Two final questions, more macro in nature, must be asked and answered: How do servant-leaders help create transformed organizations, and, how does the sustained and consistent work of forgiveness, when included in the repertoire of servant-leadership, create organizations that impact the global community? I would offer three answers in response.

First, forgiveness eradicates impersonal and dehumanizing treatment of people for which organizations are known. Because the act of forgiveness communicates value and honor, it connects the organization's vision and mission with the manner in which people are treated in the organization. Like nothing else can, the work of forgiveness bridges any gap between what is stated in theory and what is practiced in actuality. The employment of forgiveness within the organization implicitly and explicitly declares that people matter, their growth matters and their role as trustees of the public, national and global sectors (social brokers of forgiveness) matters as well. Wise and mature organizations understand the "contagious nature," the external social and global impact, of organizational forgiveness.

Second, the practice of forgiveness in servant-leadership can lead to just and fair human resource structures and processes. Because forgiveness places a high value on the inherent worth and well being of people, it leads to the establishment of internal processes, policies and training which recognize and honor that worth and well being. It is a contradiction, and perhaps even an impossibility, to vaunt the exercise of forgiveness within and through servant-leaders, yet maintain destructive and demeaning organizational policies which have the net effect of dismantling the human spirit.

Third, because of the potential size and global location of an organization, the practice of forgiveness can potentially exemplify the politics and practice of redemption, hope and alternative moral models to the larger international community (Novak, 1981, 1990). In the case where an organization which values forgiveness is a multinational corporation, owning other corporations and subsidiaries throughout the world, the impact can be significant if it is willing to value the practice of forgiveness as a shared institutional and global value and then engage in the critical work of translating the language and behavior of forgiveness into the lingua franka and praxis of the local community. If forgiveness is practiced within an organization whose workforce is drawn primarily from the indigenous population, it is highly likely that the practice of forgiveness, in some measure, would be imported into the local communities and cultures.

A Personal Leadership Style that is Restorative and Empowering

Because I aspire to be a servant-leader, becoming a practitioner of forgiveness rather than merely a theologian who knows about forgiveness is a non-negotiable. However, the reality is that leading as a servant-leader and understanding how to exercise forgiveness is no simple task. Not only is this work complex, my own effectiveness as a servant leader who demonstrates forgiveness will always require personal depth and self-awareness. My capacity to authentically restore, redeem and empower others and to be vulnerable enough to allow others to restore me is contingent upon my own experience of restoration, redemption and empowerment. There is simply no other way. There is a difference between leaders who possess knowledge alone and those who possess knowledge coupled with the courage to execute by taking what they know and translating that knowledge into actionable behaviors which create change (Bossidy & Charan, 2002). From my perspective, this ability to "translate" knowledge into actionable behaviors requires three competencies which, when applied consistently to my role as a servant-leader, will create a restorative and empowering leadership style.

First, I must always base my capacity to model forgiveness on remembering my own propensity toward hubris, arrogance, jealousy and selfishness. Leaders who do the most damage to those they lead lack self-awareness and deny their own broken humanity. The reality is that no leader can ignore her flawed humanity and continue to mature into a servant-leader. It is a Faustian myth for leaders to believe that they can conceal their humanity in order to leverage immediate and longer-term results when, in actuality, the suppression of their own humanity increases the chance that damaging consequences to people and the organization will be the eventual result. Greenleaf (1996) affirms this danger of focusing only on personal aggrandizement when he notes that "One may be conspicuously successful and at the same time may be destroying oneself and everything that is personally important" (p. 83). We do violence to ourselves, others and the organizations we serve when, as Merton (1958) describes, we choose to live in a world of unreality, blinded to our own identity, selfish ambition and success at any price.

Second, I will adhere to the belief that the exercise of forgiveness as a servant- leader releases individuals from the lethal, debilitating and immobilizing effects of their own anger, failure and shame. One of the greatest contributions I can make to an individual is to try to liberate him from the weight and baggage created by the effects of his own failures. Extending or inviting forgiveness, whether for a wrong suffered by the servant-leader or for wrongs suffered by another within or without of the organization, is a mandate for the servant-leader. The transformational impact of such liberation is powerful precisely because it asserts that, despite biased self-talk, the onerous opinions of others and costly errors of judgment, one is always worthy of love and hope and the possibility of new beginnings. As Kushner (Wiesenthal, 1969) observes, forgiveness, "…[frees] us from the shame of the past so that we can be different people, choosing and acting differently in the future" (p. 184). Servant-leaders always search for the beauty through the tarnished image. Covey (1990) affirms this thought by observing that principle-centered leadership discerns the difference between actual observed behavior and the "unseen potential" (p. 34).

Third, I will seek to exercise forgiveness in order to release individuals to the redemptive actions that restore people and organizations and which seek justice in the larger global community. In other words, servant-leaders who live and model forgiveness release others from self fragmentation and ridicule so that they themselves can be released to works of liberation and redemption on a relational and organizational level. In this sense, the act of forgiveness ultimately extends beyond individuals to the organization, the community and the global community.

As an aspiring servant-leader who fully embraces the power of forgiveness to restore and transform people and institutions, the spiritual dimension of forgiveness should not be overlooked. Given the precipitous potential for increasing chaos and hostility within our culture and world, all creation, it seems, is crying-out for forgiveness, redemption and meaning. Whether we are in concert with the words of Ambush Chief (Welch, 1986), "Give us peace and allow us to live in peace. Sun Chief, bless our children and allow them long lives. May we walk straight and treat our fellow creatures in a merciful way" (p. 113) or agree with Viktor Frankl's (2000) assessment that "survival is dependent on direction…unless life points to something beyond itself, survival is pointless and meaningless. It is not even possible…Only those who [are] oriented toward the future, toward a goal in the future, toward a meaning to fulfill in the future, [are] likely to survive" (p. 134-135), the act of forgiveness is both a spiritual work and a spiritual calling that, of its own accord, seeks to move the created order toward a unifying and life-giving goal.

I am convinced that being a servant-leader who intentionally incorporates the work of forgiveness into the total milieu of relationships and organizations, both locally and globally, represents a holistic or complete response to the overall responsibility of leadership. From a more mystical vantage point, I see the work of forgiveness, when it is authentically lived in the life of a servant-leader, as an undoing or unraveling of the insidious and unrelenting damage caused by selfish human nature. To use the powerful metaphor of Sylvia Fraser (1988), "All of us are born into the second act of a tragedy-in-progress, then spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out what went wrong in the first act" (p. 241). I believe that servant-leaders, when they speak the words of forgiveness, begin to reverse the devastation in the human soul and heart set-loose somewhere in "the first act."

References and Readings

Anderson, R. (2001). The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis. Donners Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press

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.

Block, P. (1996). Stewardship: Choosing service over self-interest. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Bossiday L. & Charan R. (2002). Execution: The discipline of getting things done. New York, NY: Crown Business.

Covey, S. R. (1990). Principle-centered Leadership. New York, NY: Fireside

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.

Frankl, V. E. (2000). Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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.

Heil, G, Bennis, W., Stephens, D.C. (2000). Douglas McGregor Revisited: Managing the human side of enterprise. New York, NY: Wiley

Hickman, G. H. (1997). KLSP: transforming organizations to transform society (Working Papers (Academy of Leadership Press).

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.

McGregor, D. M. (2001). The Human Side of Enterprise. In J. M. Shafritz & J. S. Ott (Eds.), Classics of Organization Theory, 5th Ed. (pp. 179-184). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. (Reprinted from The Human Side of Enterprise by D. M. McGregor in Management Review, November, 1957, New York: American Psychological Association)

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.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading