Servant Leadership, Justice and Forgiveness
by Jeffrey D. Yergler

It is a rare thing to either witness or experience forgiveness in the context of organizational life. It is common to encounter dehumanization, personal vendettas, and the withholding of grace. The intense toxicity of organizational culture can quickly erode character, diminish esteem and suffocate joy. When colleagues are enmeshed in episodes of hurt and betrayal and, in the process, fail to extend either an olive branch or a fig leaf to the other, they fail to provide fundamental intra-organizational models of leadership. 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). It is particularly egregious when the leader fails to offer forgiveness to those under his or her charge who have wronged the leader.

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 by the servant leader toward those who are under the influence of that leadership. When exercised by the servant leader, the total impact of forgiveness is always greater than the sum of its individual parts. In view of the potential redemptive power that forgiveness has within the organizational culture, it is extremely unfortunate that so few leaders and managers understand the deep impact that forgiveness has upon the human heart and its transformative effect within an entire corporate culture.

The thesis of this paper is 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. This thesis is based on three critical assumptions. First, since 9/11, there has been a rising tide of existential fear, chaos, and loneliness within western culture. Massive cultural shifts locally and globally are eroding cultural stability and predictability. 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 and within communities. This rising tide of silent desperation is fueling systemic dysfunction within organizations. Second, individuals are carrying their culture-induced fragility, incongruence and anomie into the organizations in which they work. Third, those who work within an organization hope it will provide meaning, safety, and predictability from the cultural maelstrom. 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. Nonetheless, it is the servant leader who is in a position to most effectively respond and intervene.

As products of western culture, many of our organizations are filled with people who are inwardly fragile, angry, insecure and fearful. They make their way into organizations with a highly reactive, suspicious and protectionist disposition. Already biased by their existential, cultural, relational and familial frustrations, it is here, within the organization filled with performance pressures, production expectations, competition, and selfishness that nascent hopes for spiritual meaning, safety and community are, more often than not, met with disappointment (Mitroff & Denton, 1999). It is this sense of disappointment within the organization that gives rise to acts of injustice, retribution, sabotage, indifference and isolationism. These are the work environments that drain or degrade, rather than give life.

Though these are the types of organizational environments that can 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 imperative because it is the door 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: hurt, disappointment, 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).

The work of forgiveness must necessarily draw a servant leader into the crucible of vulnerability and possibility with those he or she serves and leads. This paper argues that this work is critical to the role of the servant leader. To miss or deny this opportunity is to significantly impede the growth of the individual and the organization. To put it another way, to neglect this level of involvement for a servant leader is, in reality, a failure of foresight. 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).

Operational Definitions of Forgiveness and Redemption

In the context of this paper, the expression forgiveness must be seen from six vantage points. First, forgiveness is the act of releasing another from the guilt, shame, or deserved retribution they have merited through their own intentional or unintentional actions directed at 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. Third, forgiveness is a conscious choice that is made toward another who needs to be forgiven whether or not they are 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 larger 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 see and embrace their own fragility and humanity first. 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. 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 secular-social-organizational laws of fairness and justice.

Forgiveness is also redemptive. The term redemptive in this context means that the exercise of forgiveness seeks to restore another to an original form and or function which has been altered and maligned by the introduction of pain and hurt. This process of restoration is to reinstate both a person and a context to an original (positive and healthy) status. 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.

While this redeeming effect of forgiveness applies to the individual, it applies in particular to the larger relational and structural components of the organization affected by the actions of another. When a servant leader employs appropriate acts of forgiveness through individual relationships, a larger systemic impact is made upon the organization. This effect would be called the collateral impact of forgiveness or, alternatively stated, servant leaders indirectly creating changes to organizational process, policies and systems through their own forgiveness-based actions. It is rather easy to understand, then, why the matter of servant leaders and forgiveness are a critical, yet often unseen, factor in larger organizational transformation.

Why Forgiveness is Crucial for the Servant Leader

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.

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 know they are valued. This is certainly no surprise to any leader. The surprise lies in the fact of how value is communicated most effectively in the organization. There is no management process that creates value in the human soul and psyche as effectively as the experience of authentic forgiveness in the organization. Forgiveness has a sustaining power precisely because it speaks to the intrinsic worth of the person. 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 from the outside in and then from the inside out. 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 and humane. Without question, the servant leader is a powerful catalyst.

Why Servant Leadership and Forgiveness at the Senior Level is Critical

The coupling of forgiveness and leadership must be a core value among senior leadership if it is to have any impact, credibility and utility within the organizational culture. Leaders who have never experienced forgiveness find it difficult, if not impossible, to integrate forgiveness within their exercise of leadership and management. 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 and the organization. If senior leadership chooses to exclude or significantly undervalue forgiveness as a core value in all down-line management, it will be impossible for forgiveness to be embedded into the organizational culture.

The "yes" to forgiveness as a corporate value emerges when the level of pain, frustration and professional stifling within the culture begins to show itself. As systemic acrimony and disillusionment becomes apparent, servant leaders, if they are at all concerned about the rising tide of dissonance and the manner in which this dissonance infects corporate identity, morale and performance, will ask difficult questions about the fundamental nature of corporate-wide management beliefs and practices.

The difficulty of this type of evaluation by senior leaders cannot be underestimated. Not only is it difficult evaluating management philosophies at work in a given culture which are ultimately corrosive and toxic to the human spirit, it is equally difficult identifying management attitudes and practice, such as the absence of forgiveness, which are inimical to organizational health and destructive to personal esteem and worth. Clearly, an organization which lacks the presence and practice of forgiveness within its leadership core leaves an organization in extreme disarray and prey to the emotional instability that is so keenly felt by many within the larger culture. Conversely, when senior level leaders become servant leaders and embrace forgiveness as a commitment to their own growth and exercise of organizational leadership, this then becomes the "tipping point" where the tectonic plates of organizational culture begin their arduous 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 and for the sake of others.

Why Forgiveness is Decisive for the Employee

We are prone in western culture to operate with an excessively individualistic orientation toward others. Since we so easily cut ourselves off from the relational requirements of community, we also cut ourselves off from the relational lubricant and salve of forgiveness and grace when we are "forced" to be in community within the organization. The result is that we find ourselves in community by necessity yet without possessing the requisite relational tools to make community work. It is in this context, for example, where we are reminded of the importance of relationships and our responsibility to become an arbiter of healthy relationships whether or not we feel we have the experience or knowledge to create those healthy relationships. The good news is that what one does not learn in our culture can be learned within an organization where servant leaders model forgiveness and invite others to experience justice and grace within this community.

Healthy organizations, created by servant leaders, build communities out of which emerge authentic relationships and a concern for justice. This is only possible because servant leaders understand the intrinsic worth of people and the value of building empowering relationships and communities that are generative and restorative. Desmond Tutu (1999) provides an excellent description of the relational richness that so profoundly characterizes the relational 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 is 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 and define a sense of transcendent worth and value in the immediate and long-term contexts of our lives. Leaders can either assist in that journey or become barriers to it by ignoring or suppressing the transcendent presence within the heart. This behavior, on the part of the leader, is often damaging. Frankl (2000) affirms that the emergence of neurosis can be 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).

Only as we come to terms with the transcendent presence within can we successfully 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 is maximized not through external drivers such as organizational environment, money, or positional status but rather by human-relational connectivity that communicates meaning, value and belonging to the employee. Create healthy relational processes between servant leaders and workers, and you create value which then generates motivation.

The Brokenness We Each Bring to the Organization

Forgiveness responds to a fundamental understanding that lives within every human: we know ourselves to be imperfect and flawed, insecure and vulnerable. In the organization we fabricate barriers and walls that keep others from discovering our vulnerabilities and keep us locked inside. We use every ounce of energy possible to keep those barriers impenetrable. Our attempts to hide our weaknesses not only keep us imprisoned, they also create fear. This is the fear that we will be found-out or revealed for who we are. Servant leadership's exercise of forgiveness, borrowing from Deming's (1994) parlance, actually drives fear out of the workplace by acknowledging our flawed and imperfect humanity and encouraging risk-taking and building trust.

Forgiveness sends a message that the organization is a safe place, while at the same time it expects results and higher 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 transaction of forgiveness between the servant leader and the one served, something of great value is given away to the person for the benefit of the person first and for the organization second. Forgiveness creates the context for the growth of worth and esteem. Leadership that includes forgiveness must fundamentally be an altruistic expression of management, that is, it must be given for the sake of the gift itself. 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 on the part of the servant leader 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.

The Impact of Forgiveness on the Organization

How do servant leaders who practice the work of forgiveness change the organization? We have affirmed up to this point the importance of forgiveness as a component in the life of the servant leader and in the lives of those who are served and led. Servant leaders utilizing forgiveness also impact organizations and their structures in the following three ways. First, forgiveness leads to the abandonment of the impersonal treatment of people for which organizations are known. Forgiveness connects the organization's vision and mission with the people who serve in the organization. Practicing forgiveness within the organization implies that people matter, their growth matters and their role as trustees of the public sector (social brokers of forgiveness) matters as well. Wise organizations understand the social and relational trickle-down impact of forgiveness practiced within the organization.

Second, forgiveness creates just and fair 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 and policies which recognize and honor that worth and well being. It is a contradiction to vaunt the application of forgiveness within and through servant leaders and yet maintain destructive and demeaning policies which dismantle human worth.

Third, because of the size and location of the corporation or multinational, organizational forgiveness exemplifies the politics of redemption, hope and alternative moral models to the larger global community (Novak, 1981, 1990). Contextually speaking, if forgiveness is practiced within an organization whose workforce comes from the indigenous population, it is highly likely that the practice of forgiveness, in some measure, would be extended into the local communities and cultures of the employees. Furthermore, if forgiveness is a shared core value of leadership and management throughout an entire multinational structure, then forgiveness is "imported" at multiple global locations.

A Personal Leadership Style that is Restorative and Empowering

Because I aspire to be a servant leader in the organizations in which I serve, becoming a practitioner of forgiveness rather than merely a theologian who knows about forgiveness is a non-negotiable. Yet, 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 is contingent upon my own experience of restoration, redemption and empowerment. There is simply no other way. There is a difference between servant 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). This ability to "translate" knowledge into actionable behaviors requires three competencies which, when applied consistently to my role as a servant leader in any organization, will create a restorative and empowering leadership style.

First, I must always base my capacity to model forgiveness by remembering my own propensity toward hubris, arrogance, jealousy and selfishness. Leaders who do the most damage to those they lead are those who lead from their lack of self-awareness and the denial of their own broken humanity. Though leaders try, the reality is that no leader can ignore his own 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 now in order to leverage immediate and longer-term results when, in reality, the suppression of their own humanity increases the chances that damaging consequences to people and the organization will be the eventual result.

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 flawed humanity. Extending or inviting forgiveness, whether for a wrong suffered by the servant leader or for wrongs suffered by the person at the hands of others in or out of the organization, is, I believe, a mandate of the servant leader. The transformational impact of this liberation is powerful precisely because it presents the belief that, despite biased self-talk and the onerous opinions of others, one is 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. As Ferch (unpublished manuscript) observes, offering "forgiveness and compassion is…based on the higher vision of humanity to which the servant leader is called" (p.3). Covey (1990) affirms this thought by observing that principle-centered leadership discerns the difference between behavior and the "unseen potential" (p. 34).

Third, as a companion piece to the aforementioned, 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 individual particularity to the organization, the community and the global community.

Clearly, 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.

Finally, being a servant leader who intentionally incorporates the work of forgiveness into the total milieu of relationships and organizations represents, I think, a holistic or complete response to the overall responsibility of leadership. To borrow a metaphor from Martin Luther King (King, 1969) the servant leader who serves and leads with forgiveness develops his inner being, creates compassion and concern for his fellowman and refines the clarity of his upward call to God.


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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: 253-565-3039.

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

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