by Rosabeth Moss Kanter |
Leaders must be firm and foster accountability, but they also must know when to forgive past wrongs in the service of building a brighter future. One of the most courageous acts of leadership is to forgo the temptation to take revenge on those on the other side of an issue or those who opposed the leader's rise to power.
Instead of settling scores, great leaders make gestures of reconciliation that heal wounds and get on with business. This is essential for turnarounds or to prevent mergers from turning into rebellions against acquirers who act like conquering armies.
Nelson Mandela famously forgave his oppressors. After the end of apartheid, which had fostered racial separation and kept blacks impoverished, Mandela became South Africa's first democratically elected President. Some in his political party clamored for revenge against members of the previous regime or perhaps even all privileged white people. Instead, to avoid violence, stabilize and unite the nation, and attract investment in the economy, Mandela appointed a racially integrated cabinet, visited the widow of one of the top apartheid leaders, and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would clear the air and permit moving forward.
If revenge is not justice, it is not strategy either. The founder of a second-tier computer company was pushed out a few years after the company went public. I watched him gather investors and regain control with something to prove — that they were wrong to push him out. Once back at the helm, he had no clear alternative direction. The company foundered and was sold at a low valuation. Let's hope that revenge against critics isn't the motivation for Michael Dell to take Dell private or the founder of Best Buy to attempt a takeover.
Anger and blame are unproductive emotions that tie up energy in destroying rather than creating. People who want to save a marriage, for example, must let go of the desire to hurt a partner the way they think the partner has hurt them and instead make a gesture of reconciliation.
Those whose main motivation is to settle scores and get payback — to obstruct rather than construct — are on the wrong side of history. Their legacy is not rebuilding, but rubble. From (ahem) members of Congress to leaders in any turnaround situation, it's a lesson worth remembering: Taking revenge can destroy countries, companies, and relationships. Forgiveness can rebuild them.
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