Most people think that forgiveness is an act of weakness, but what’s really true is that it takes an immense amount of strength to forgive.  

Why is forgiving so hard for us? Because we are slow to accept our own failures, setbacks, and disappointments with courage and grace. 

Forgiveness is one of the 24-character strengths in Martin Seligman’s Values in Action (VIA) Survey.  And according to research, very few people lead with forgiveness. 

When you lead with forgiveness, you forgive those who have done you wrong. You always give people a second chance. Your guiding principle is mercy, and not revenge.  

Every leader makes mistakes but only the good ones take responsibility for them or forgive those who made mistakes.  

Why is it so difficult to forgive? 

  1. Fear: you may fear that by forgiving someone, you are giving them permission to hurt you again. 
  2. Resentment: if a person has hurt you deeply, it can be hard to push aside your resentment and forgive them. 
  3. Pain: forgiving someone who has wronged you is difficult when you are still feeling the pain of their action. 
  4. Pride: you might struggle to forgive if you feel like it would make you “lose” the point or control
  5. Lack of empathy: if you can’t understand how and why someone else acted in a certain way, it can be hard to forgive.

“The greatest exercise of power is the choice to forgive rather than punish.”   

Forgiveness is me giving up the right to hurt you for hurting me. 

A culture of forgiveness often yields a culture of bravery. When people know that they’re loved, cared for and supported even when they fail,  they are more willing to try audacious, creative and risky things. Where people don’t feel like they had the permission to fail or to make mistakes, they’re much less likely to try big and bold things.  

In a recent podcast, Brene Brown and Mike Erwin, the author of “Leadership is a Relationship”,  talked about the very rare ability to forgive and move beyond the transgressions, the offences, and the hurt. In order to forgive, especially when there’s a big betrayal,  “something’s got to die”.   And what has to die is often an expectation, most likely an expectation of perfection.  

Forgiveness starts with self-forgiveness. And this requires a great deal of emotional effort, humility, and self-compassion. It requires letting go of expectations, hurts and disappointments that come from not living up to one’s own standards. 

Forgiveness is often a character strength for children. Younger kids tend to forgive each other easily. After a hurt,  most kids have completely forgotten about it and they’re not even thinking about it.  As we get older, we get stingy. And as William Arthur Ward said “forgiveness is a funny thing. It warms the heart and cools the sting”.

What practical steps can you take, to become more forgiving to self and others? 

  1. Acknowledge the hurt you feel and take time to process it fully. 
  2. Consider the perspective of the other person and try to understand their behaviour. Bad behaviour is often the result of a deep hurt.  
  3. Acknowledge your accountability for the situation. It usually takes two to dance. 
  4. Offer an olive branch in the form of an honest conversation or an apology from you. 
  5. Pro-actively work on restoring the relationship by rebuilding trust. 

As someone who has forgiveness as my top VIA strength, I know that there is a dark side to it too. Like any strength that goes in overdrive, too much forgiveness can become a weakness. It cannot be used to excuse behaviour that is wrong or if it prevents you from taking action against a pattern of bad behaviour or underperformance.  

There is a sweet spot, where forgiveness becomes a superpower. People tend to feel when someone is leading with compassion. And owning up to when they made a mistake.  Our nervous system is wired to relax when we feel that truth, vulnerability, and authenticity is being expressed by another human. Forgiveness remains the attribute of the strong, creating trust, connection, and opportunities that can be taken significantly further than most people realize. 

What would it take for you to forgive yourself or someone who wronged you and move forward? 

If you want to see how forgiving you are, you can take the free VIA character strengths test here.