Ernest R. Anderson Jr., MS, RPh
“Leadership in Action” is authored by Ernest R. Anderson Jr., MS, RPh, System Vice President of Pharmacy, Steward Health Care System, Boston, Mass. Mr. Anderson welcomes your input on leadership issues, at
“Forgiveness is a secret that is hidden in plain sight. It costs nothing and is worth millions. It is available to everyone and used by few. If you harness the power of forgiveness, you will be sought after and regarded highly. And not coincidently you will also be forgiven by others.”

—Abraham Lincoln

As a society, it seems we often need to find fault, place blame and get revenge. We see this over and over again in movies and television shows. Life is full of injustices, we are told, and so it only seems fair to get even.

When we are the victims, we sometimes feel as though the only way to recapture a sense of peace is to get back at the offending person. But Ken Sande in “The Peace Maker” (third edition; Baker Books, 2004) suggests otherwise. Genuine forgiveness, he notes, is a far more lasting source for finding inner peace. And although it is one of the most difficult gifts to give to each other, if we can learn this secret of forgiveness, it can be incredibly liberating.

The first step in this journey is to understand the cost of holding onto feelings of bitterness and anger toward someone whom you feel has offended you. Oftentimes, that other person is not even aware of the offense, and so we turn our bitterness inward and poison our own soul. And we don’t just suffer emotionally; that level of unhappiness takes a physical toll as well. Fortunately, these feelings do not have to last forever; you can choose to let go of them; you can forgive. When you make that choice honestly and truly commit to it, a huge weight is lifted from your shoulders and a sense of personal peace seeps in.

You might be saying, yes but you don’t understand. I lost my job because my boss doesn’t understand me, or my professional life was destroyed by the actions of another, or I was personally hurt and marred for life when this person took that action against me. You mean I should forgive in those circumstances too? Well, it really is your choice of how you want to live your life. Bitterness and strife can sour the one who holds onto these destructive emotions. Letting go of them, in contrast, can truly be restorative.

Think about it from a professional standpoint. Who are the successful people you like to be around? Is it not those who have a positive attitude despite their circumstances, along with their talents and skills? If you are hiring a pharmacist and have two equally qualified candidates, but only one has a smile on his or her face and a positive attitude, which person will you choose? I know my choice. We are all overworked and under an extreme amount of pressure in health care as well as many other industries. That is the nature of our existence. When we harbor bitterness, it comes across to others, even if unintended. People don’t want to “hang out” with—and bosses don’t want to promote—the person with the sour attitude.

An insightful person once gave me a wise saying that I have long followed and shared with others: “Attitude is everything.” I have even put this saying on a slide that I often try to weave into lectures at the appropriate time.

image Make the First Move

What about when someone offends you and you both know it? You could take the attitude that it’s up to that other person to come on bended knee and beg your forgiveness. You may be waiting quite a while for that to happen! A humble, wise person instead would go to the offender and say something like, “I sense that there is an issue between us. I would like to clear the air. Have I done something to offend you?” If the person tells you there was an offense, then you can ask for forgiveness for what you have done. In many cases, that approach will open a dialogue. The other person may even apologize for how he or she treated you. If, however, the person denies having offended you, then you need to tell that person you sense there is a problem between the two of you, and that you need to get to the root of the problem to solve the issue. When you make that effort and forgiveness is sought and given, bonds often can be mended and peace can ensue.

It’s important to note, however, that forgiveness is not a free pass when someone has done something wrong. Sometimes there are offenses that have consequences that go beyond “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” In a job situation, stealing, for example, is usually an offense that costs the person his or her job. All too often in our medical profession I have seen many people bear the consequences of drug diversion, such as losing their job, their license to practice and bearing additional consequences with the authorities. If the individual is truly sorry for what he or she has done, forgiveness is possible, but that person still will bear the consequences of the offending actions.

Can Unforgiveness Be Overcome?

Is it possible that you have offended another and have asked the person for forgiveness, only to be refused? Perhaps the person wants to “make you suffer” as punishment for your perceived transgressions. If the other person makes a choice not to forgive, then you have done all you can do and the burden lies with that individual. These are difficult situations that may require the intervention of a mediator. Perhaps you as the manager can serve in that role. You may need to dig deep to uncover hidden agendas that need to be resolved to reach true peace.

How To Promote Forgiveness

Forgiveness starts the difficult and sometimes lengthy process of reconciliation. The goal of these efforts is to restore the relationship to its prior place. It may not mean that you are going to be best friends forever, but you are able to coexist in the workplace. Occasionally, however, if deep forgiveness and true reconciliation have taken place, it is possible that a deeper understanding of each other will allow empathy and compassion to build a relationship that was greater than when you started. It can happen!