The principle of forgiveness has been ingrained in our spiritual life, but as an everyday tool, it seems to have been discarded by leaders as a sign of weakness.
Employers rarely seek forgiveness from their employees. Parents don’t seek forgiveness from their children. Politicians never seek it from their constituents; nor do athletes from their teams, coaches from their athletes, or teachers from their students.
We could go on and on, but the evidence is clear. The game of LIFE has a “reset button,” but it is not being used!
Occasionally, leaders approach me with an eye for a solution to a tragic rift. The “event” has often been discussed by committees, worked on by consultants, and has cost unimaginable sums of time and money. Sometimes the disaster refuses to die, and it goes on claiming victims who were not even around when the incident took place. Companies close, families break apart, and churches split.
Amazingly, all these events seem to have a single thing in common: if a leader was the person who caused all the trouble (pulled the switch, made the move, etc.), he or she tried to clean up the disaster and make everything “nice” without knowing the difference between a mistake and a choice. The gap between the two is monumental. Knowing the difference can save you a ton of heartache, trouble, and money.
A mistake is when you turn left instead of right and get lost in the woods, subsequently stumbling off a cliff and breaking an arm. But when your mother has warned you against going into forest and you do so anyway thinking that no one will ever know, any injury is the result of a conscious choice.
When a leader makes a mistake, a carefully worded, heartfelt apology is usually all that is needed to right the ship. We rationalize, “there but for the grace of God, go I,” and we grant our own grace to the person, take a deep breath, and start over with the knowledge that “they won’t make that mistake again.”
But when there’s trouble because of a choice, the only thing that can ever hope to repair the damage is a specific request for forgiveness.
Some leaders try to push a version of this into the charred landscape: “I am so sorry. I have apologized to my family and now I apologize to you. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.” As weeks and months pass, some become almost belligerent in their attempts to make things right. “How many times must I say that I am sorry?” they plead.
Yet these apologies never set things right. The leaders made bad choices, and the people floating in the wreckage left behind have the unsettled suspicion that, “You aren’t sorry. You’re just sorry that you got caught.”
Whether or not this dissatisfaction is acknowledged or even consciously understood, it remains a gaping wound that is often never healed. Parents who make wrong choices in front of their followers (children) and chalk them up as mistakes, throwing them away with casual apologies, know that those offenses can pile up in the life of a child and overflow into astonishing rebellion and disrespect.
Can you remember an instance in your life when someone lost the reins of leadership because of a choice he or she made? An inappropriate comment, an unwise association, even a bad attitude on display can fester into unintended and crippling consequences if the “reset button” is not pushed in time. Setting things right—actually asking for forgiveness—can be uncomfortable in the moment, but the effects of this simple action will astound you.
Nothing beats this:
“I am so sorry. I am ashamed. Will you forgive me?”
These humble words, when spoken honestly, can heal virtually any wound. I have watched in awe as leaders reclaimed their authority with the quiet impact of this single principle. By harnessing the strength offered by the principle of forgiveness, corporations have regained their stature and families have been made whole again.
As you spread this simple message, I urge you to enjoy being the bearer of good news.