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Let It Go

Bolwell, Brian J., MD, FACP

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000550761.03242.03
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I've been on a few first dates in the past years, lots in fact. As one would expect on a first date, we often discuss what we're looking for in a relationship. Answers range from detailed responses to the innocuous and sometimes even vapid.

I recently brought up a New York Times article that resonated with me entitled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” by Alain de Botton. It may seem like an odd story to bring up in an article about leadership; however, there are similarities between leading a cancer center and dating... seriously.

To summarize, the article states that people tend to marry for the wrong reason—like a partner's attractiveness—but in doing this, we miss a crucial point. When married, your spouse will certainly annoy you, their habits, mannerisms, and more, and you will inevitably do the same. The key, according to the article, is to find a partner that can manage these annoyances with tolerance and humor.

De Botton writes, “the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity is the true marker of the not overly wrong partner.” I like the concept of managing differences and annoyances with tolerance, humor, and generosity. It is a pretty important concept in leadership.

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The Art of Forgiveness

Every day there is a plethora to do, tasks to complete, and obligations to address. Running a huge cancer center requires delegating a lot of important tasks to others. You depend on a lot of people to get everything done.

Nobody is perfect. People will make mistakes, forget to do things, let you down, screw up, and not care about something as much as you do. (Remember, you are undoubtedly doing the same to them.) How do you manage this? You have to learn the subtle art of forgiveness.

James Hunter addresses this in his book The World's Most Powerful Leadership Principle: How to Become a Servant Leader which I've recommended before and believe to be a quintessential read for current and emerging leaders. Hunter defines forgiveness as letting go of resentment. He says that it is essential for a leader to “develop the skill of accepting limitations in others and the capacity to tolerate imperfection.”

Forgiveness is different than accountability. Holding people accountable for their actions is central to successful leadership. But this is about letting go of resentment. These are your best people, your top performers. You trust and believe in these people and they have good hearts and plenty of talent. And, you are invested in their learning and growth.

Forgiveness is a complicated emotional state and an interesting concept. Hunter writes, “It can be a difficult skill to develop when our pride and feelings are hurt....it takes a secure and mature individual to develop the skill of forgiveness.” He then quotes Ghandi, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

I never thought much about forgiveness as a skill to develop, something I personally had to work on. But upon reflection, it makes sense. If you are filled with resentment about a person or a situation, it does not lead to anything positive. Rather, it is likely to lead to all sorts of negative things, such as making yourself a miserable person, and perhaps a miserable leader to be around. Better to deal with it and move on.

If something particular about someone is truly gnawing away at you, then have a face-to-face conversation about it. Express your concerns, and explain why their actions hurt you. Listen to their side, and then be done with it. It is fine to remember the situation, and is in fact important to do so. But that is different than continuing to dwell on the negative.

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Combining Forgiveness & Mentoring

For leaders, one key concept to this topic is to combine forgiveness with mentoring. As I stated before, I delegate a lot. It is important to not micro-manage, and to let others complete tasks in their own way. It may be a different way than yours.

The results may be different. In fact, the results may be poor, and could cast you in a bad light. If so, use the experience as an educational opportunity. Explain what you observed, and how you may have approached the task differently. Importantly, ask what they were thinking.

If you are open to hearing their ideas, frequently their approach makes more sense in retrospect. Often there are circumstances of which you were unaware. If you failed to have the conversation; if you harbored resentment and just got more and more angry, you risk creating a rupture in your relationship. There is no need for that. Talk to your people (see Talk To People, Oncology Times 2017;39(20):17).

It may be that they truly made a big mistake that made you look bad. If so, I guarantee they feel worse than you. Forgiveness will improve communication and make your relationship with them stronger. It will also motivate them to excel the next time.

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Servant Leadership

Do you really need to be strong to be able to forgive? Well, at the very least you need to be comfortable in your own skin. You need to be at peace with who you are. If you harbor resentment, it likely says something about your own insecurities more than the actions of others. Consider that the next time you are still angry about somebody's insult towards you from 15 years ago.

Forgiveness therefore is a key part of servant leadership. One of the challenges of servant leadership is that your quest to be an individual who can see things from the perspective of others and forgive, can be equated to weakness or a lack of personal strength and conviction. This is an inaccurate assumption because being a servant leader requires significant strength.

If you have a track record of courageous leadership, of integrity, of authenticity, of being able to hold others accountable, of having high standards—then I think servant leadership is the only way to go. Leadership is lonely; you better be secure as you work your way up the management ladder.

Unexpected, crazy stuff is a regular feature of running a cancer center. One needs to expect this (see Contextual Intelligence, Oncology Times 2018;40(9):26). Sometimes the crazy stuff is your own team doing something that is infuriating. Take a deep breath. Talk to them. Forgiveness, combined with mentorship, will not only ensure that the mistake will not be repeated, it will motivate your team to excel going forward—your forgiveness means that the last thing they will want to do next time is to let you down.

And remember, that resentment gnaws away at you and leads to nothing positive. So have the inner strength and sense of self to let it go. Forgive.

BRIAN J. BOLWELL, MD, FACP, is Chairman of the Taussig Cancer Institute and Professor of Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner School of Medicine. Cleveland Clinic is a top 10 cancer hospital according to U.S. News & World Report.

Straight Talk: Today's Cancer Centers

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