Apologizing is a Courageous Leadership Act

by | Nov 24, 2020 | Leadership, Managing Teams, Uncategorized

Welcome to another Consider This. In the past few days, I’ve been engaged in a few awful dramas between members of a group I’m a part of, facilitated a conversation with various Board committees who struggle with each other, conversed with a colleague about the art of apologizing, and listened to a podcast, twice, about women and power. It’s been a busy time. What is the connection between these events?

The connection is how powerful and healing a true apology can be, and how bloody hard it is. Apologizing can make me, make anyone, feel vulnerable. I’ve confused feeling vulnerable with weakness, so, unfortunately, I’ve not apologized as often as I should have. As I am learning, and then forgetting, and then relearning, apologizing is simultaneously a vulnerable AND courageous and daring act. If I think of myself as courageous, it is easier for me to apologize. I mustered up my courage and apologized to my friend for my part in the drama that hurt her. She said she felt heard and seen, which healed the tension between us, and between her and the rest of the group. I witnessed our feuding

Board committees talk things through and then apologize to each other. We can now move forward. Apologizing is that powerful.

My colleague told me about the work of Dr. Harriet Lerner around apologizing. Here are Dr. Lerner’s top three guidelines. She actually has 9, but these 3 are a good start.

1. A true apology does not include the word “but” (“I’m sorry, but …”). “But” automatically cancels out an apology, and nearly always introduces a criticism or excuse.

2. A true apology keeps the focus on your actions—and not on the other person’s response. For example, “I’m sorry that you felt hurt by what I said in the meeting yesterday,” is not an apology. Try instead, “I’m sorry about what I said in the meeting yesterday. It was insensitive and uncalled for.” Own your behavior and apologize for it, period.

3. A true apology is short. The apology stays focused on acknowledging the feelings of the hurt party without overshadowing them with your own pain or remorse.

As a leader, consider whether you’re apologizing enough. Consider what your impact might be if you decided to apologize more, or more skilfully. And think about whether you associate apologizing with weakness or with courage. Hopefully, it’s with courage. You can do it.