Resentment Has No Place in Business. Here's Why Leaders Must Learn to Forgive and Forget.
Why leaders must forgive and move forward.
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The year was 1980. I sat in the august anteroom of one of the nation's leading private foundations waiting to meet its CEO, a man who possessed the resources to provide much-needed financial resources to the small, nonprofit art and design college I'd recently founded. With barely 100 students at the time, SCAD was a scrappy, young startup and needed all the financial support we could get. Even to have landed an appointment with this powerful man was, in its own way, a victory. Every year, his foundation contributed millions of dollars to other nonprofit art organizations and institutions of higher learning. I had a strong case to make for SCAD and the evidence to back it up, including our first SCAD catalog, which I'd written and published myself.
I believed SCAD would change the world and transform higher education in the process, with our mission to prepare students for creative professions and rewarding lifelong careers. The term "creator economy" would not be coined for many decades yet, but I already saw this idea clearly in my mind and hoped to share that vision with this powerful man. Unfortunately, the meeting did not go as planned. I had been in his office for fewer than 10 minutes when he curtly informed me our conversation was over — and promptly ushered me out.
Grudges do not serve leaders
I learned many valuable lessons from that brief encounter, including, for example, that established institutions, even those that claim to champion progress and innovation, are quite often threatened by startups. And I learned that grudges do not serve leaders. I privately forgave the powerful CEO for his obvious antipathy and resolved to move on, emboldened to build our young startup into the most innovative and creative university on the planet.
"Don't get sad, get even," Taylor Swift croons on Midnights. She cuts a mean pop hit, but resentment has no place in business. "Truly transformational leaders are acutely aware of the cost of animosity," notes business writer Manfred Kets de Vries. "[H]olding grudges holds people back."
Where would Apple be now, had Steve Jobs felt spite against the company that fired him in 1985 and then begged to hire him back 12 years later? Jobs might have enjoyed hurling a rotten Granny Smith in the faces of his detractors when they made the comeback offer. Instead, he chose to move forward and saved thousands of jobs, created new products as revolutionary as Gutenberg's press and revived an iconic brand into what is now the world's most valuable company.
The power of forgiveness
On a more practical level, studies have shown that in the workplace, letting go of grudges (i.e., forgiveness) highly correlates to increased productivity. "There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed," says Dr. Karen Swartz, director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Forgiving and moving on from recent (and not-so-recent) hurts has been linked to a lower risk of heart attack, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and stress. Forgiveness often cures what Big Pharma cannot.
"Forgive and forget," the old adage says. Forgetting possesses its own special power. Wallowing in one's mistakes serves little purpose. While a glut of recent commencement speeches focus on the power of failure, I recommend the precise opposite. Forget failure — literally. Jettison bad memories! Focus instead on past successes. Where did you choose rightly? When did you nail a pitch? What big bets have paid off? Duplicate and amplify those victories. Leaders who look backward and see only failure fail to prepare for the challenges ahead.
Speaking of forgiving and forgetting … this lesson can also help you build a brilliant team. Over the years, I've seen a few of our most talented leaders and professors resign and take jobs with competing universities. How easy it would have been to take these departures personally! But when good people leave, I always make it clear that they're welcome back to SCAD any time. According to LinkedIn, "boomerang" hires, as they're now called, accounted for nearly 5% of all new hires in 2021. In the last year alone, SCAD has recruited and rehired no fewer than 20 former employees — a veritable host of familiar faces who know our culture, our policies and our mission on day one.
No leader in world history has ever been served by resentment. Clearly, that foundation president from so long ago held his own grudges and found great pleasure in dismissing me from his office so unceremoniously. He wanted to discourage me, to dishearten me. For the sake of our 53,000 alumni, 16,500 students and 2,000 employees, I'm glad he didn't.
Today, SCAD operates three accredited university locations and four world-class museums on two continents and proudly proclaims a 99% employment rate for our graduates (for five years straight!). Antipathies do more than slow you down: they take you backward. Let go of hurts, keep your heart open, and watch your company go where I've been looking all my life: up, up and up.