Apologizing: A Sign of Leadership Strength or Weakness?

Posted by Conni Todd on Fri, Feb 07, 2014

In the past week, when Atlanta was grappling with “snowmageddon” during which finger-pointing and blame were rampant, my husband and I received a letter of apology from the President of Woodward Academy that both surprised and delighted us.

Three things Mr. Gulley, the President, handles incredibly well in the letter: (1) he takes full responsibility for making a wrong decision, (2) he commits to a different behavior in the future when facing decisions of similar magnitude, and (3) he ends by acknowledging with great appreciation the amazing feats of his staff and faculty in support of the students and families. Here’s the opening:

I apologize. Words cannot fully express the deep regret I feel for
the unimaginable horror so many members of our community
experienced yesterday in their commute home. Hindsight is
always much clearer, and from that perspective the decision to
release at 1:40, even to have conducted school at was wrong..."
                             - Stuart Gulley, President, Woodward Academy

As a Woodward parent (7th grade son attends) and leadership consultant, I took this apology to be sincere, transparent, and full of self-awareness. I strongly believe that Gulley’s apology created a foundation for constructive change and as a result he earned a deeper respect and admiration from his audience.

Some leaders, though, associate apologizing with weakness. According to one area of research, there is self-perceived power in not apologizing.

"When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more
empowered. That power and control seems to translate into
greater feelings of self-worth."
                             - Tyler G. Okimoto, researcher at the University of Queensland

This suggests to me someone whose big picture is filled solely with himself or herself, with a concern for self-empowerment, not someone who is concerned for co-workers or colleagues, nor empathetic with other’s plight. And, unfortunately, there are huge interpersonal costs associated with not apologizing for mishaps and even bigger implications for a leader’s ability and intent to serve his/her organization.

Apologizing can make one feel vulnerable and most leaders don’t associate vulnerability with strong leadership. Although her 2010 TED Talk put her on the national map, Brene’ Brown dispels the cultural myth that vulnerability is weakness in her book Daring Greatly, and argues that it is our most accurate measure of courage. Fast Company named Daring Greatly one of the top 10 business books of 2012.

It takes courage to apologize because we enter into the world of the unknown: we don’t know how people will respond or how we will be judged as a result of imperfection. Courageous leadership is tied to authenticity and what better way to show up authentically than through a sincere apology? If (or when) deciding to be a courageous leader by apologizing, consider incorporating these 3 points for a more effective apology: 

1. Be authentic and specific

 2. Express empathy with those who were impacted

 3. Identify what you will do differently in the future to avoid repeating the problem

In Tough Talk - Ten Tips for Disarming Difficult Conversations, Clearwater business partners Hopke and Dannenfelser make the case that a willingness to apologize positively correlates with productivity and team success. The book also gives great guidelines for how to admit you erred and examples of how to recover with an apology. It’s no secret that apologies can raise hopes and mend relationships, if we can set egos aside. Take a look at our Tough Talk Prep List for difficult conversations at work.

If you would like to portray a leadership brand that is courageous, connected and self-aware, master the technique of apologizing and have the courage to do so.

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Topics: leaders, definition of leadership, building trust

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