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Leadership and Forgiveness

| January 26, 2021

by Sean McDonald

Leadership and Forgiveness

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Sean McDonald, Vice-President of MOR Associates with contributions from Thomas Bourgeois, currently in his second week as Interim CIO of the University of Arizona Global Campus. They may be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].]
Tom turned to me, after the Leading Change segment in a workshop I was facilitating and said, “Forgiveness! If you can’t forgive, you are anchored to the past. Forgiveness creates capacity for change”.
For Tom, he had been reflecting on his transition from a distributed organization to a central organization and the hardened distrust that had existed for years prior across that divide. He had denied the opportunity to work for the “dark side” for years, but finally was convinced to join. To his amazement on the other side of the cultural patrician were people, good people, with aligned vision for the critical pursuit of a shared mission, only from a different perspective. Doubly amazing, overnight, his old group now no longer trusted him. What had changed? Or more so, what needed to change? This is not a story isolated to Tom, it exists in each and every one of our institutions.  This, unfortunately, exists prevalently in our country today as well.
This “ah-ha” and reflection that there was a link between leading change and forgiveness became a path of freedom for Tom. It also became a great source of conversation for him and I over the past few years. In January 2020 we began this Tuesday Reading exploration, but as the pandemic hit, our Tuesday Reading agenda shifted to meet evolving context.  Fate instead brought this Tuesday Reading to you today, a time we would benefit more than ever it seems from a reflection on and practice of forgiveness, creating the capacity for change.
Through our collaboration and research, Tom and I offer a path of exploration for those seeking to release the anchors to the past, create the capacity for change, allow for evolution, moving forward, forgiveness. We will leverage Tom’s story to help paint the picture.
Awareness. For some, it is clear where this practice could be pointed. For others, finding time to think and reflect will benefit awareness of anchors tying them, or their groups, to the past. As in Tom’s story, forgiveness is not always one-to-one, it can be cultural, passed on over the years as a norm within a working group, so familiar no one questions it. Thus, we want to be able to dig a bit deeper when we find we don’t trust someone, when we are not interested in working with someone, and when we are not open to someone else’s perspectives. What is behind that? Where did that come from? For me, a great reflection tool to aid this exploration has been Chris Argyis’ Ladder of Inference. Questioning our assumptions and seeking alternative scenarios and perspectives are key elements to this reflection.  We tend to narrow in on only the data that reinforces our prior beliefs, confirming our own biases. The process of forgiveness starts with awareness, including your ties to the past and present.  We can’t control others or cultural norms.  However, we can control our awareness of the context.  This is a foundation for the next step, to acknowledge.
Acknowledge.  Forgiveness is not about forgetting, in fact, it is quite the opposite. For Tom, the analogy that worked best was financial debt. There is a debt and we must put that on the table. At Tom’s institution, there were past disconnects in collaboration between central and distributed groups.  These historical divides grew into norms of the culture. Acknowledging this, how it makes you feel, and what constraints it has created are the first step toward forgiveness. This clarity on what was “lost”, the debt, can allow you to see what it would take, what it would mean to loosen the anchors, and see the opportunity that could unfold if only you could find a way.
Aim. Forgiveness is also not about lowering your standards.  It is part of the process to reinforce the aim of your high standards, your expectations for self and others. That is the guide forward. Aiming to your expected high standards is also a call for increasing the trajectory of your perspective. We can loosen our fixed gaze at a disconnect between two people or two “sides” and look wider to see the bigger picture.  To see the mission, and/or shared interests. For Tom, this was a key piece in moving forward, a reminder that “we” are here to serve the same mission.
Action.  So far much of this path is an isolated process, but necessary for this next critical step: creating space for action, to reconnect, for opportunity. With reinforced standards and greater purpose in hand, we want to invite others in for evolved action, contribution, and connection. It is a process that can start small, but must start to begin. For Tom, he leveraged the MOR tool for building relationships, the 4 I’s. He met one on one with numerous people, investing in relationships, rebuilding trust. Eventually, he also began to bridge the connection with others as well. It was a process, one he walked step-by-step, but over time, together they began a collective pace of progress.
Advance.  Like we started with acknowledging the debt, we must also acknowledge the progress, the success, and bring clarity to the opportunity in reach.  After all, as leaders we are seeking to create capacity for change.  Not for change itself, but because our greater purpose is too grand to ignore. We must step into the need, we must step forward to evolve. We will only get there together.
Forgiveness.  It begins with awareness and acknowledgement of where we’ve been, and evolves to our aim and action to advance toward the desired future state. For Tom and I, we started this conversation with the question: “Is forgiveness something that should be in the leader’s tool kit?”  Today we now ask: How could it not be?  Where might forgiveness serve you?