I recently experienced a situation with a faculty leader at my daughter’s school that brought one of my pet peeves back to the top of my mind:  many people in leadership positions have a very difficult time apologizing.

After reading over a defensive, insincere apology from this individual, I thought to myself:  “This guy isn’t a true leader.  True leaders apologize and take corrective action.”

I knew I had thought this thought before.  But after 1,600 or so blog posts, I wasn’t sure if I ever blogged that thought before.

So, I googled “true leaders apologize and take corrective action.”

I didn’t find any writings of my own.  The top google results had titles like “Should Business Leaders Apologize?” and “When Should a Leader Apologize – and When Not?”  As I perused the question-laden titles of the articles that Google was serving me, it became more clear that many leaders don’t even know if they should ever apologize and may actually think that they shouldn’t under any circumstances.

Yikes!

For them, perhaps, apologies seem like a sign of weakness.  For me, apologies are a sign of strength.  If I, as a leader, screw up, I am confident enough that I can say “I made a mistake.  I am sorry.”  Sure, it takes guts to say that.  It takes determination to recover from a mistake.  But, if I don’t have guts and determination, I shouldn’t be in a leadership position.

Would you be able to take it if I said something harsh?

Well, here it is:  If you even think that apologizing might be a sign of weakness, then you are already a weak human being.

And I won’t apologize for saying that!

I look at leadership credibility like a bank account.  I believe that good leaders make enough “deposits” into their “credibility accounts” that a “withdrawal” from such an account won’t overdraw the account.  Sure, a mistake may tarnish the opinion of any subordinates who thought you were perfect.  But, chances are:

  • None of your subordinates actually think you are 100% perfect anyway
  • Your subordinates will know you made a mistake, so not apologizing isn’t going to fool them into not noticing you messed up
  • Your apology will spotlight a side of you that your employees may not see often:  your human side.  That may actually make you a more endearing person to them, which isn’t a bad thing!

Going back to my google results, there were many additional, valuable tidbits from the articles in my search results.  I’ll share some of my favorites to close out this post.

Ivey Business Journal cautions to beware “of the ‘non-apology’ apology…An effective apology does not seek to excuse – to explain, perhaps, but not to dodge responsibility.  Apologies that rationalize behavior are often those that are forced by a settlement.”  The article includes an analysis of a written apology of late Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, when Apple was criticized for reducing the price of an iPhone by $200 only two months after it debuted at a $599 price point.  The author cited a dubious line from Jobs’ apology:  “This is life in the technology lane.”  She wrote that this line single-handedly killed the chance that Apple customers would be convinced that Jobs “felt their pain.”  One more important piece of advice regarding apologies comes at the end of the article:  “Never blame others.”

An article on thomrainer.com lists five good points regarding leaders’ apologies:

  1. “Many apologies begin with ‘If I have offended anyone . . .’  That is a non-apology apology. Leaders need not apologize if they don’t know whom they have offended. It’s a cop-out apology.”
  2. “A good apology states the nature of the offense…The apology does not sidestep the issue, but confronts it head-on.”
  3. “One of the roles of good leaders is to build strong relationships. All leaders mess up relationally at times. The organization needs leaders who are willing to apologize not only to heal a relationship, but for the health of the organization.”
  4. “Apologies defuse antagonism in the organization. Antagonism can seriously harm the health of the organization.”
  5. “Apologies should be a part of a leader’s life on both a professional and personal level. It takes both humility and integrity to admit fault and to apologize for it. But most recipients of our apologies are grateful beyond measure that we are willing to do so.”

In a Forbes article with perhaps my favorite title – “Courageous Leaders Don’t Make Excuses…They Apologize” – the author writes that apologizing freely “requires a great deal of courage…People need courageous leaders in order to feel there’s someone to make the tough calls and to take responsibility for them – they need to know that the buck truly does stop with the leader…Courage begets courage:  your followers are more likely to make their own tough decisions and to take responsibility for them when you model that behavior.  You have their backs – so they’re much more likely to have yours.”

This article includes a five point “apology primer,” which lists a series of steps that are involved in a good leadership apology:

  • Say “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.”  These words put a “stake in the ground to communicate that you truly regret your behavior and wish you had acted differently.”
  • Stay in the first person.  Say “I” (as in “I’m sorry that I made the wrong decision”) rather than “you” (as in “I’m sorry you feel that way”).
  • Don’t equivocate.  Watering down an apology with excuses “can blow the whole thing.”  This is where the apology of the faculty leader I mentioned earlier began to fall apart.  He wrote “Unfortunately no matter how careful we are, oversights sometimes happen…Needless to say, things will never be 100% flawless.”  Nope nope nope.  That’s not an apology.  That’s trying to justify a mistake.  Even if a mistake could be justified with words, that doesn’t mean that you should try to justify it with words.  There are words that you should keep to yourself and these are the types of words that should have not been written.  I would have written “We strive to be 100% flawless.  Unfortunately, in this instance, we failed and it negatively affected you.  And for that, I sincerely apologize.”
  • Say how you’ll fix it.  If you don’t change anything, that indicates that there is a strong likelihood that the problem will happen again.  Three weeks ago, I wrote about the controversial Starbucks trespassing arrest that occurred following a Starbucks’ employee’s refusal to grant restroom access to a visitor that had not made a purchase.  One of the changes Starbucks announced last week, in the wake of this controversy, was saying that they were going to open their bathrooms “to everyone, whether paying customers or not.”
  • Actually fix the problem.  “If you say you’re going to behave differently, and then don’t – it’s actually worse than not having apologized in the first place.  When you don’t follow through, people question not only your courage, but also your trustworthiness.”

I’ll include one more example that violated the “don’t equivocate” rule.  One of my passions is running races.  A few years ago, I ran an annual race that was usually pretty well-done.  However, that year, as I and others crossed the finish line, our feelings quickly changed from the usual “finish line euphoria” to confusion and even anger.

You see, we were all thinking that we set personal records for the quickest time completing a 5k race.  But, when some of us began looking at the GPS distance tracking apps on our phones, we realized that we didn’t run the 3.1 miles of a 5k race.  We only ran about 2.75.  The course was measured incorrectly.  To a runner who is trying to set a personal record, that’s pretty disappointing.  Basically, the stats from the race don’t really count because the distance wasn’t accurate.

The race director did post an apology to the event’s Facebook page.  But it was really a half-hearted apology.

Though it’s been years since the race, I still remember these words from the apology:  “We’re sorry if it ruined anyone’s day.  But the race was for a good cause.”

The words “ruined anyone’s day” really was a poorly veiled attempt at trying to make the dissatisfied customers feel petty.  And, while the race was indeed for a good cause, that doesn’t excuse anyone from being incompetent and irresponsible towards hundreds of people who paid money to participate.

Everyone had the option of simply donating money to the cause.  And many of us do simply donate generous amounts of funds to various charities.  But the difference in simply submitting a donation and registering for a race is the expectation that we will receive a benefit that meets certain standards when doing more than simply submitting a donation.  There was no place whatsoever for a “but” in the apology.

Look, as leaders, we may feel that “accidents will happen” and that people don’t need to make a big stink about certain errors.  But, the key to apologizing in these situations is to keep those feelings out of the apology.  Apologizing properly is courageous.  And occasionally biting our proverbial tongues when tempted to make excuses or lash out at those to whom we are apologizing takes perhaps the most courage.

True procurement leaders are courageous.  Apologize when you have to.  And apologize the right way.

Charles Dominick, SPSM, SPSM2, SPSM3

Charles Dominick, SPSM, SPSM2, SPSM3 is an internationally-recognized business expert, legendary procurement thought leader, award-winning entrepreneur, and provocative blogger. Charles founded the Next Level Purchasing Association in 2000, oversaw its incredible growth, and successfully led the organization to its acquisition by the Certitrek Group in 2016. He continues to blog and provide advisory services for the NLPA on a part-time basis as he incubates his upcoming business innovations. Charles is also the co-author of the wildly popular, groundbreaking book, "The Procurement Game Plan: Winning Strategies & Techniques For Supply Management Professionals."

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