Say You’re Sorry

Don’t hesitate to say, “I’m sorry.”  An apology can be one of the most profound, inspiring, and galvanizing acts a leader can do.

Marshall Goldsmith, the noted executive coach, would also add “magical” “restorative” and “healing” to the list of properties.  By apologizing for an outright mistake, or even just an unintended consequence, a leader can at once demonstrate accountability, authenticity, integrity, innovation, courage, and interpersonal savvy… almost sounds like a leadership competency model, right?

In my experience, the subject of apologizing is too seldom embraced and encouraged among executives.  Perhaps they believed John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, when his character says, “Never apologize mister—it’s a sign of weakness.” Some fear that an apology may undermine their credibility and expose some fatal weakness that the enemy will exploit.  To them, the boss should always be right.

But in reality, commanding respect and authority doesn’t require infallibility – it’s quite the contrary.  Leaders earn respect by owning their decisions, for better or worse.  A leader who is willing to apologize says to his people: I am secure enough in my own abilities to be imperfect. On a symbolic level, a good apology demonstrates that a leader puts the organization’s needs ahead of his own. On a more practical level, an apology models the importance of continuously learning from mistakes and improving upon them.

And the gesture of apologizing shouldn’t just be confined to when you’ve made a mistake or error.  An apology can also be a powerful tool when, in the process of doing the right thing, you have to make others uncomfortable.  For example, a leader may have to remove a staffer from a project that they’ve poured their heart into.  While the decision may be appropriate to protect business interests, the leader’s action can leave the staffer feeling hurt and rejected.  In this case, an apology from the leader would go a long way toward demonstrating empathy and restoring good will.

I often talk about the importance of leaders demonstrating generosity.  Indeed, there is nothing more generous than offering an apology when it counts.  In that moment you are conveying that you care more about making things right by others than preserving your own pride. And when people know that you have their back, forgiveness will blossom.


Tips on apologizing

1. Don’t procrastinate: Apologies lose their authenticity when they’re seen as a last resort

2. Be specific: Let the other party know exactly what you’re apologizing for

3. Skip the excuses: Focus on the recipient, and don’t make it about you

4. Offer a solution: Apologies aren’t just about contrition, they’re about learning

5. Follow through: An empty apology is worse than none at all


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