We all admire strong leadership. In politics and religion, we may not agree with the leader’s intent, policies or beliefs but we are still free to admire their strength. In the business environment, strong leadership is not only encouraged, it is demanded of those who have been given responsibilities in the workplace.
To succeed, we too want to be strong leaders.
And so, in a desire to strengthen our leadership style, we may delve deeply into books on Leadership Theory, read biographies and autobiographies of the great leaders of history, reflect on the methods used by those who have authority over us in an attempt to ‚see what works‛. Knowledge is power. Power is strength. Strength is good leadership.
But what does it mean to be ‘strong’? In a traditional business environment, dominated by the leadership styles of Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation, strong leadership has been wrapped up in titles (‚Managing Director‛ � how ‘strong’ is that!), longevity of service (who would argue with the Executive who has been 20 years in a post?) and even car-parking allocation (‘Reserved Parking: Directors Only’). Strong leadership, in a traditional business environment, has been highly visible and equally impenetrable.
But times are changing. Strong leadership, in an economy based on connection and relationship, is becoming more about the ‘soft stuff’. Could Keith Coats have got away with writing a book entitled Everything I know about Leadership I learnt from the Kids (Penguin, 2005, ISBN: 0143024671) 20 years ago? Too relational. Too soft. Today, however, it is books such as these that are re-writing the agenda on leadership.
Soft is the new strong.
Relational leadership is effective leadership.
But if that is true, the question arises, ‚What does strong leadership look like where there is conflict?‛ Relational leadership is all very well when things are going smoothly. What about when there is disagreement and division? Harder still, what does strong leadership look like when the leader has made a mistake â€? and everyone on the team knows it? Doesn’t the effective leader need to move back out of the ‘soft stuff’ and get ‘strong’ again? You know how it is; this ‘soft stuff’ is all very well but when the going gets tough…
No. Soft is the new strong.
Relational leadership is effective leadership.
In the Journal of Leadership Studies (vol.7, 2001), Shann Ferch and Matthew Mitchell wrote an article entitled, ‘Intentional Forgiveness in Relational Leadership: A Technique for Enhancing Effective Leadership’. Forgiveness in leadership? Forgiveness for leaders? How soft is that? Let’s briefly explore what they have to say…
Ferch and Mitchell define Intentional Forgiveness as, ‚…the deliberate decision to work through debilitating emotions and choose relational justice, in which a leader chooses to create an environment in which forgiveness can be asked and granted.‛ The idea of acknowledging â€? even rewarding â€? failure is not new in the business environment (we do not need to go over the well-known examples of IM and other companies that embrace such concepts as A Failures Forum etc). What is so radical about Ferch and Mitchell’s suggestion is that leaders themselves should model a culture of vulnerability for their staff and acknowledge their own failures (c’mon â€? we all fail sometimes). And, yes, ask forgiveness for their mistakes.
What does it mean for leaders to create and model a culture of Intentional Forgiveness?
#1: Leaders must be open about the fact that they too need forgiveness
How many of us in management situations are open about our own failures? To be sure, we are very ready to point out the mistakes of others â€? but to acknowledge our own? We are fearful that such vulnerability might undermine our authority. The truth is, however, it might just win us the respect that strengthens our authority…
#2: Leaders must acknowledge that followers have the choice to forgive or not
Reconciliation and relational restoration can be a painful journey. That is especially the case if the leader has failed staff in the area of financial reward or the development of personal opportunities. The hard truth is that those being led may choose never to trust the leader again. To win back trust and respect demands a great deal of pro-active intervention on behalf of the leader.
#3: Leaders should encourage followers to forgive and remember
In a Connection Economy, accountability travels in both directions: leader-to-follower as well as follower-to-leader. True accountability is only possible when vulnerability is permanently on the agenda. You, as a leader, are only human. If you encourage your staff to remember that, they will respect you more â€? and maybe you will be more forgiving of their weaknesses too…
#4: Leaders should stress that forgiveness leads to personal growth
For past errors to be dealt with, they must first be openly acknowledged. That process of honesty and openness � in and of itself � strengthens character and allows for personal growth. It may be painful but growth always is, because it means stepping outside of a comfort zone.
#5: Leaders must frame forgiveness as involving both mercy and justice
Corporate Social Responsibility is increasingly high on the agenda of companies as a key 21st-century ideal. The pursuit of justice for local communities (perhaps through local political involvement) and the provision of mercy in the two-thirds world (perhaps through debt relief or support of aid projects) are central to this new social ethic. But what would CSR look like as an internal dynamic between management and staff? The old saying, ‚Charity begins at home‛ may be flawed and open to selfish misuse but there is an element of truth in it that could be usefully employed in this context.
#6: Leaders must speak about intention versus impact
Openness and honesty requires a platform for critique where the follower who has been harmed can speak freely about the impact of the action. If this can be achieved without the leader getting defensive, the follower will then be in a position to hear about the leader’s true intent in pursuing that course of action. This clarity will result in better understanding as the foundation for reconciliation.
#7: Leaders must frame forgiveness and reconciliation as viable.
Ferch and Mitchell are very aware that asking for forgiveness and pursuing reconciliation is ‚a very difficult task involving a continual openness to personal humility and a recurring long-term battle against pride, defensiveness, and resentment.‛ However, if a manager can model this successfully, the relational aspect of that organisation can be transformed for the better. It may be hard work but it will be worth it.
In the Connection Economy, hierarchical models of leadership are no longer viable. Effective leadership is about building relationships that work. The hierarchical relationship was built on a power-dynamic where the leader stood faultlessly over a workforce that was too scared to get things wrong. The Connection Economy demands a more honest and real form of relationship that is built upon mutual respect and vulnerability. Something altogether more ‘human’.
When things go wrong, when conflict arises, when we make mistakes, it may seem easier to retreat into the old hierarchical model. But it is not very honest and, in the long-term, is counter-productive.
Do you want to be a strong leader? Then you must be prepared to ‘go soft’.
Soft is the new strong.
If we do not believe that relational leadership works when the going gets tough, then it is not a concept worth following at all.
When the going gets tough, the tough get soft.
Now there’s a challenge worth facing!
Dr Steve Griffiths is best known for being a Possibilities Thinker. He has inspired the transformation of many communities through his ability to dream great dreams � or distil the vision of others � and lead in such a way as to make those dreams and visions come true. Steve has been particularly involved with change management. Steve has a profound gift of communication and specialises in making abstract ideas easily accessible, applicable and ‘user-friendly’. He is a great motivator whose infectious enthusiasm and belief that ‚anything is possible‛ has had an immeasurable impact across the world.

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