Forgiveness in a business environment can be used as an opportunity for learning, moving away from negative attitudes that instil fear amd stifle productivity.

The knee-jerk reaction of too many people in leadership positions, when they feel wronged, is righteous indignation and the urge for revenge.

One factor that sets truly transformational leaders apart from the run-of-the-mill, however, is the ability to forgive — to let feelings of anger, resentment and blame fall away and become something constructive.

Great leaders know the art of reconciliation.

“Truly transformational leaders are acutely aware of the cost of animosity,” says Manfred Kets de Vries, a professor of leadership development and organisational change at the international business school Insead.

“They realise the havoc that can be created by an unforgiving attitude ... Holding grudges is a form of arrested development. It holds people back.”

In organisations in which you know that, if you make a mistake, you’re going to be fired, a culture of fear which stifles productivity sets in, Kets de Vries says.

“Leaders who can tolerate mistakes, who see them as learning opportunities, are those who create a great corporate culture,” he says.

Forgiveness, Kets de Vries claims, builds loyalty and good citizenship. People working in organisations that have been instilled with a forgiveness culture are more likely to make an extra effort, which has important consequences for the bottomline. It also helps transgressors have a more positive outlook on the future.

Leaders today operate in settings in which strife is rampant and, if left unresolved, could have severe implications for their organisation. By walking the talk and encouraging a culture of forgiveness, however, leaders promote an organisation which looks to the future.

In his paper “The Art of Forgiveness: Differentiating Transformational Leaders,” Kets de Vries highlights one of the most obvious examples of transformational forgiveness through a comparison of two very different African political leaders.

“If I ask my class which living political leader do you most admire,” he says, “95 per cent say Nelson Mandela. When you ask why, the answer is forgiveness.”

At the end of South African apartheid, and after he himself had spent 27 years in prison, Mandela forgave his oppressors and encouraged many of his party’s members who clamoured for revenge to do likewise, telling them, “Forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.”

In comparison, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe opted for bitterness, vindictiveness and hatred against white Zimbabweans and those of the nation’s black citizens who opposed him. By encouraging his supporters to forcibly occupy white-owned commercial farms, he caused Zimbabwe, once the bread basket of southern Africa, to become its poor house. Under his rule unemployment rose to more than 70 per cent and life expectancy fell. In mid-November 2008, Zimbabwe’s inflation rate hit an estimated 6.5 sextillion per cent, making the national currency basically useless. A “cleanup campaign” targeting the slums, where his most hardened opponents resided, left 200,000 homeless.

It may seem impossible to forgive someone who has slighted you or taken deliberate action against you, but the price of bearing a grudge can be high. Numerous studies have suggested that bitterness and hatred create stress disorders, negatively affect the immune system and are positively correlated with depression, anxiety, neurosis and premature death.

“In comparison,” Kets de Vries says, “taking the high road of forgiveness contributes to greater spiritual and psychological well-being, lower anxiety levels, less stress, lower blood pressure and lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse. People who forgive more readily also tend to have fewer coronary-health problems.”

Lives are not calm flowing rivers. Relating to others, whether friends, strangers or family members, is always accompanied by the risk of being hurt. With today’s business world relying heavily on networking and interpersonal relationships, the risk of being offended is high.

We cannot change what has happened. There is no “delete button” for the past. So the crucial questions, Kets de Vries says, are how we choose to deal with transgressions and how we metabolise the feelings.

Leaders can work on certain traits to enhance their ability to forgive, but there is always a delicate equilibrium between nature and nurture.

“One element that can help is having empathy, the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes,” Kets de Vries says. “Why are certain things happening? Why did that person do that? Can you really imagine why, or is your mind so stuck that there is no way you can?”

The other element is the degree of emotional control.

“When you get angry, you can feel the anger rising in your body,” he says. “It’s important to recognise the feeling, to remember what happened last time it occurred. Perhaps you blew up, refused to forgive, and the situation got worse. If you see something has happened, calm down and think about it.

“But don’t over-obsess,” Kets de Vries adds. “If you have harsh standards about what is right and wrong, you can have a tendency to go over and over an error in judgment or perceived slight. You really add to the problem by too much rumination.

“The ability to forgive needs a certain amount of maturity,” he says. “Think of Nelson Mandela in his prison cell for 27 years. He probably had a temper too, but he learned the need to modify it.”

While true forgiveness is hard, pretending to forgive is easy. Saying “sorry” is merely a temporary measure that never really erases the permanent scar underneath.

Nor is forgetting through repression of the problem the answer. If the road to forgiveness appears to be blocked or if the transgression has had such a devastating effect that it is impossible to move on, the time has come to seek professional help, Kets de Vries says.

“People struggling with forgiveness need to accept that life is a series of learning experiences,” he says, “and that all life’s encounters can make us wiser.”

Forgiveness is not forgetting, of course. Realistic forgiveness is about healing the memory of the harm, not erasing it, Kets de Vries says.

“It is very different from condoning a transgression or excusing whatever unacceptable behavior has occurred,” he says.

“Forgiving means not being a prisoner of the past,” Kets de Vries concludes. “Truly transformational leaders like Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi seem to have figured this out.

“When we forgive we don’t change the past, but we can change the future.”

Jane Williams is the editor of Knowledge Abu Dhabi.

© The New York Times 2013