How Great Leaders Forgive


By Jas Singh

Last August I was working on a CEO search for fast growing global technology company. It was a tough assignment, and the requirements were very specific. To find the right person, our client had agreed that we would need to look at candidates globally.

During our search we managed to identify one executive based in Canada who was perfect for the role. Problem was, he wasn’t looking – in fact he’d just been given a bumper long term incentive plan and things were going well. However the chance to run something fast growing, based in the Valley and frankly speaking really cool, appealed to him. To my surprise, he agreed to have an introductory conversation.

As you can imagine, being the head of a global business, his availability was pitifully limited. In fact, it was pretty much non-existent. So he agreed that the only way to make this happen was to fly across to San Francisco especially for this trip. Literally for the day, over the weekend in his own time. To meet the Chairman of the board.

On the day of the interview (a Saturday) I got a call on my cell. He’d been waiting in reception for 30 minutes. The Chairman hadn’t shown up. No show. Although I later found out there was a very good reason for this, understandably my candidate was pi**ed off. To put it mildly.

Anyone who has worked in the recruitment or HR industry will know that interviews are funny things. Although many of us have meetings moved and clients re-schedule on a daily basis, for some reason when it is regarding an interview things always get personal. Both candidates and clients can take things very personally.

I apologised to my candidate profusely. I tried calling my client myself to see if I could see what had happened – no answer. Our candidate had flown thousands of miles, in his spare time and there he was literally stranded in the middle nowhere. Total waste of his precious time. I’d have totally understood if he’d never wanted to work with me again.

On the Monday I wrote an apologetic email explaining what had happened to our candidate. Our client did the same. After hearing our candidate so upset a few days later, I was barely expecting an acknowledgement, let alone a response.

What happened next was surreal.

Not only did our candidate reply, he empathized. He recommended a contact to my client who could possibly help him out with his problem. Although his availability was limited, he suggested my client actually fly out to meet him in Toronto. Although this meeting never happened, later on he even recommended some candidates who could be a good fit for the role. Amazingly, our client actually ended up hiring one.

Not what I’d expected in return for wasting 24 hours of someone’s time.

Genuinely forgiving someone is extremely difficult to do. As social creatures, we are often strongly protective of our pride in one form or another.

But great leaders are different. Leading is serving, and in order to work effectively with diverse types of people, forgiveness is an essential trait.

Here are some ways how great leaders forgive.


1) They don’t take everything personally

Our careers and our jobs are not the same thing. But since we spend so much time in the work place, and invest so much energy and effort, it’s easy to get emotionally attached to everything we do. Spending two weeks on the big presentation just to be told it’s not right. Working on a 3 month bespoke client project only to be told its not the right solution. Interviewing someone for eight weeks only for them to take another job at the last minute.

Since humans are generally quite indecisive – especially for bigger decisions – rejection is simply a part of life. No-one can be relied on 100% and everyone has a totally different perspective on things. Especially in business – people can have a totally rational reason for doing things that is totally opposite to our point of view.

Great leaders understand that business is business is business. They try not to take things too  personally and unless it is something serious, simply forgive and move on.

It’s easier to forgive if you’re not so emotionally attached.

2) They take time to cool down

In the heat of the moment, we all say stupid things. Especially if we feel hurt or rejected. The funny thing is however, once we say things our pride often causes us to follow through. To “stick to our guns” so that we come across as consistent and credible. Bizarrely we would often rather live with a regret, than admit we have been wrong.

The best thing to do when tensions are running high is nothing. As the Canadian academic Laurence Peter once said ” Speak when you are angry – and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”

It’s much easier to forgive if you haven’t expressed your anger in the first place. If you’ve had a chance to think things through, diffuse the situation and looked at the bigger picture.

Because the funny thing is, with a little bit of time things never seem such a big deal anyway.

Great leaders take time to cool.

3) They put others first

Anyone who has had children will know how it completely changes your life. Perhaps one of the biggest changes is how forgiving parents have to become – how the tantrums, constant mess and rule breaking just becomes a part of everyday life. How (so I’m told) we even look back at those times when we’re older with fondness and affection. (Really?).

Why? Because it’s so much easier to forgive those we care about. Those we respect. Those we love.

The greatest leaders throughout history have been those who have put the needs of other first. Those who live to serve others. Those who love people. For them, forgiveness is easy as they are more interested in guiding others to success.

Leaders serve other first.


Forgiveness is not easy.

Yet often it is the only way to let go of the past and move on.

Hiring managers can gain much from those who know how to forgive and don’t take things too personally – who can get over things quickly and move on.

Anyone you’d like to forgive?

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