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Real Leaders Know How to Say, “I’m Sorry”

Real leaders know how to say I'm sorryA sincere apology increases leadership authenticity, credibility, and opportunity.

We all have days when we’re tired or stressed, days when we’re critical and sharp with others, days when we’ve risked, reached, and made mistakes. These are the days when we just need to say, “I’m sorry.”

In their Forbes blog post, Creative Leadership: Humility and Being WrongDoug Guthrie and Sudhir Venkatest state that, “leaders must not only recognize their failures, but also acknowledge them publicly. In being wrong, they can find both authenticity and opportunity.”

A sincere apology goes a long way to building our credibility. And even more important, it allows others to risk and reach, knowing that they do not have to be perfect either. Let me tell you a story.

I suspected I was in trouble when I found Alan, our CEO, waiting for me behind his desk. We usually met in the adjoining conference room to discuss his speeches. He was reading the script I’d written for him to deliver the next day.

“Come in, come in.”  His tone was sharp, and he didn’t look up. “This isn’t right. If we don’t focus on the sales data from the past six months, they’re never going to get it.You didn’t include enough data, and I want to start out with what they’re doing wrong.”

I explained that instead of putting the data right up front, I’d woven it into his comments in a more participative way to ensure that he was communicating on all three levels: intellectual, emotional, and practical. I explained that instead of feeling threatened and as though they’d failed, the team would feel motivated instead.

“No, I want you to do it my way.”

“Okay, fine.”  I was less than smooth, and I knew my irritation was showing. But darn it, I’d done the research. I’d spoken to dozens of field representatives, and I knew they didn’t have all the information to understand Alan’s point of view.

So, I went home feeling like a failure myself, ate dinner, set the alarm clock, and went to bed. I got up at 3:00 a.m., made a pot of coffee, and sat down to revise the speech.

I left the revised speech on Alan’s desk at 6:00 a.m., feeling tired and discouraged.

At 6:30, my telephone rang. It was Alan. My blood pressure leapt as I waited to hear his assessment of the speech.

“Good morning, how are you?” His voice was quieter than usual.

“Uh, I’m fine, how are you.” I was surprised at his question. Alan didn’t usually spend much time with preliminary conversation.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Look, I’m sorry, Sher. You were right. Will you put the speech back to the way it was?”

I was astounded. I’d worked with many other CEOs and never had any of them apologized for anything. “You’ve got it!”

My respect for this CEO shot sky high, and my energy bounced back with a bang. I’ve never forgotten how that executive leader made me feel and that it took courage for him to apologize. And, I have always tried to remember to apologize to others when I slip because I’m tired or stressed and communicate in ways I never meant.

Sometimes, leaders tell me that they don’t know how to apologize. They worry they will sound weak or glib.

In her Forbes blog post, Courageous Leaders Don’t Make Excuses…They Apologize, Erika Anderson from Proteus International offers her 5-step Apology Primer. Really good stuff.

How have you felt when a leader has sincerely apologized to you?

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