Great Leaders, Veiled Vanity and Forgiveness

Today’s definition of a great leader has evolved.  Power, prestige, position have displaced others as pre-eminent qualities of a great leader.  I recently read a terrific post on Harvard Business Review that reminded me of one such displaced trait that some might even perceive as quaint.

The ability and willingness to forgive others has not only slipped in stature, some may now even believe it to be indicative of weakness.  However, revenge (as the opposite of forgiveness) isn’t proper strategy or leadership, but rather thinly veiled vanity as the following story about General Ulysses Grant illustrates.

In the historic Civil War battle for Fort Donelson, General Grant had asked for Navy support and ordered them in.  In their haste they got too close and were beaten severely.  Two had their steering knocked out by the fort’s cannons and began to drift down river.  Grant and his army were in a precarious position.  His 20,000 men surrounding the fort were equal in numbers to the defending confederates in and around the fort.  It is an axiom of war that the attacker nearly always needs an advantage of at least three to one to be certain of victory against a well-entrenched army.  Grant was an aggressive general who generated his own luck by pressing the enemy hard enough that they made mistakes.  As he continued his attack the defenders grew nervous and tried to escape by knocking a hole in Grant’s lines and escaping with their army.  As they made an attempt to do so, they made a fatal error when they delayed to gather supplies and ammunition. As the pressure slackened, Grant said, “the one who attacks first now will be victorious.”  He won the battle and secured the fort. It is a very rare event for an entire army to be captured.  General Washington had accomplished it at Yorktown.  Grant’s senior leaders were excited at the prospect of having the enemy regiments paraded in front of the victors, with bands playing and the opposing general ceremoniously handing over his sword.  When one of them asked General Grant when the ceremony would be held he responded, “There will be nothing of the kind, the surrender is now a fact.  We have the fort, the men, the guns.  Why should we go through vain forms and mortify and injure the spirit of brave men, who after all are our own countrymen and brothers?”

Great leaders, like Ulysses Grant, understand that forgiveness for mistakes, for perceived slights, even for war or debt, promotes a healing process and growth in individuals, teams, companies and nations.  This can seem counterintuitive when we’ve been programmed to believe in rewarding good behavior and providing negative consequences for improper behavior.  However, timely forgiveness can create indefatigable loyalty and strong team dynamics.

This certainly proved true for Grant and Lincoln as they famously moved toward rebuilding by forgiving, rather than demanding reparations or “vain forms.”

Seeking payback through humiliation or other means, regardless of attempts to veil it, seldom creates positive momentum.  As Mahatma Gandhi powerfully suggested, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

 David Chase has experience in small to medium private companies and large public companies as a senior operational and financial leader.  With 14 years in finance, a CFO of multiple entities and divisional EVP experience, Dave has a breadth of experience.  Dave has led or been instrumental in raising multiple rounds of equity and debt in excess of $450 million.

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