A metaphor I like to use for describing what leaders need to do to create change is that of a golfer. To successfully execute a golf shot, a golfer needs to look two ways. They need to look down to understand how the ball’s current position impacts the available options as to where it can go, as well as the risk vs. reward tradeoffs inherent in those options. A golfer also needs to look up to determine where they want the next shot to land. The “look up” deals with vision. The “look down” deals with current reality.
There is one look that the best golfers don’t allow to influence their next shot and that is the look back. In other words, while they learn from their past mistakes, they are also quickly forgiving of them.
Forgive: stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.
I was inspired to think about the role of forgiveness in leading change by religious teacher Richard Rohr. Recently he wrote, “. . . to receive reality is always to bear with it for not meeting all of our needs. To accept reality is to forgive reality for being what it is . . . Without forgiveness nothing new happens, and we remain frozen in a small past [emphasis mine].” It occurred to me that one of the challenges leaders face is that while they are looking up with optimism at a transformed future, many followers are looking back with resentment at past offenses.
These offenses can be personal such as a raise/promotion/transfer/bonus/position they felt was warranted but not given. But they often also include past organizational mistakes they believe have been made:
- “We used to care about the relationships with our customers but now it’s just about the numbers.”
- “We’re not doing enough to retain our best people.”
- “We’ve never been the same since [fill in the blank].”
- “Why do “they” (some part of the organization) always think they know better than us?”
Whether it’s for personal or systemic reasons, many followers are living having not forgiven a reality that they believe didn’t meet their needs. As a result, rather than embrace change and a new future, they continue to look back in anger and resentment, and “remain frozen in a small past”, as Rohr says. Such people become pockets of resistance and negativity that can make change difficult more for emotional than tactical or strategic reasons.
So what is a leader or change catalyst to do? I’ll give some answers to that in Part 2.
 Apple Dictionary