Apologies and Leaders: It’s Simple, Really

Does saying “I’m sorry” help? As with most things in life, the answer is: it depends. For an apology to work, it needs to be real. It needs to be unequivocal and sincere. You can’t tap dance around the issue with phrases so beloved of corporate offenders such as, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by [insert the sin du jour].

No you’re not. You’re sorry someone is offended, not that you committed the offense. You’re sorry you got caught, and you’re trying to get away with the barest amount of public remorse so you can go back to doing whatever you shouldn’t have been doing in the first place. Too many company leaders try to wiggle out of actually being sorry with backdoor escapes like this. It’s no wonder people are cynical about corporate executives and politicians these days, with what passes for apologies out there.

In her most recent blog post on Spin Sucks, “When a Leader Learns of Unethical Behavior,” Arment Dietrich CEO Gini Dietrich provides a valuable lesson in leadership – and how to say you’re sorry. She details an incident where an employee was accused of doing “a bad thing” and, although the facts at first seemed to support the employee, it turned out months later that the employee was wrong. I missed the original incident, in which Gini apparently publicly defended the employee.  Today, months after the original incident, when facts came to light that proved the employee had indeed done this bad thing, Gini went online and apologized. I’m willing to bet that 99.9 percent of those outside of Arment Dietrich and the people involved had forgotten all about it. Gini most likely could have gotten away with a private apology to the person who raised the issue with the employee in the first place. But she didn’t. She went public with her apology, just as public as apparently the initial incident had become:

 “Sometimes the people you trust to do their jobs do bad things. And you have to take responsibility. It isn’t right. It isn’t fair. But it’s part of being a leader.”

I don’t need to know anything more than the bare outline of the situation she provides in her post – quite frankly, it’s none of my business – to know a real, heartfelt apology when I read one. CEO’s, take note. It’s really very simple. You can do it, trust me….if you’re a real leader.

Being a leader is more than being the name at the top of the organizational chart, or making the biggest paycheck. It’s not just an acceptance of responsibility but an understanding of how the leader sets the standard for the organization. It’s saying “we” when things go right, and “I” when things go wrong. It may sound trite, but leading by example is still the best way to build a team that can accomplish what needs to be done. Sometimes that means getting the credit when things go right, and sometimes, even if it’s not your fault, it means shouldering the blame when things go wrong, even if you had absolutely no control over what happened. It means being strong enough and ethical enough to say, “I’m sorry. I take responsibility. I will make sure it never happens again,” and mean it. There’s a big difference between saying, “it’s my fault,” and taking responsibility for something. As a leader, you will often be called upon to take responsibility for something that isn’t your fault. Gini didn’t drag up the original incident. She didn’t make excuses, or try to blame others. Just a simple, straightforward statement:

“It happened. What’s done is done. I missed – or blissfully ignored – the facts. Because of that, I owe the community here an apology. I was adamant the transgression hadn’t happened…and I pulled many of you into the conversation about it. But we did do something unethical. It has been fixed. We now have a change in our process should this ever happen again. I’m very, very sorry.”

This statement covered the essentials of an honest apology:

  • Acknowledgement that it happened
  • Express sincere concern for those hurt by the incident
  • Say you’re sorry
  • Promise to fix the problem so it doesn’t happen again
  • Be sincere

There’s a lot of people out there – me included – that could learn a lot about how to issue a graceful apology from Gini.

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