The Art of Forgiveness: Differentiating Transformational Leaders

41 Pages Posted: 18 Apr 2013  

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries

INSEAD - Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise

Date Written: April 18, 2013


This article explores the subject of forgiveness and its importance in the context of leadership. Forgiveness is one of the factors that differentiates exceptional from mediocre or ineffective leadership. When leaders forgive, they dissipate built-up anger, bitterness and the animosity that can color individual, team, and organizational functioning. Forgiveness offers people the chance to take risks, to be creative, to learn and to grow in their own leadership. Individuals, organizations, institutions, and societies can progress when people are not preoccupied by past hurts. After taking Nelson Mandela as an example of a leader who practiced forgiveness on a transformational scale, a “forgiveness questionnaire” helps readers to assess their own ability and inclination to forgive. The Lex Talionis or law of retribution, emerges, however, as an essential part of the human condition. To understand forgiveness dynamics, its meaning is deconstructed; the forgiving personality is analyzed, and forgiving and unforgiving leaders are compared using traditional conceptual frameworks and a psychodynamic lens. The journey toward forgiveness and its various stages is explored, and pseudo-forgiveness described, with a warning that forgiving doesn’t imply merely forgetting. The mental and physical costs of a non-forgiving Weltanschauung are discussed, and suggestions are made for how to become more forgiving, a process wherein self-reflection, self-understanding, and self-expression take a central position.

Keywords: Forgiving, Leadership, Lex Talionis, Forgiving Personality, Stages of Forgiving, Psychodynamic, Authentizotic Organization, Psychotherapy

Suggested Citation

Kets de Vries, Manfred F.R., The Art of Forgiveness: Differentiating Transformational Leaders (April 18, 2013). INSEAD Working Paper No. 2013/52/EFE. Available at SSRN: or

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries (Contact Author)

INSEAD - Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise ( email )

Fontainebleau Cedex, F-77305

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