The Apology Tool in the Leadership Toolbox

March 5, 2010

Leadership

Tiger Woods did it. Al Haig didn’t do it. Belatedly, John Edwards did it. Akio Toyoda has had to do several times in his short tenure as Toyota’s president. An apology is the tool in the leader’s toolbox that he or she doesn’t want to use.

Leaders prefer denial to apology and often utilize denial first…only later resorting to apology – thereby diluting the credibility of the apology. “Never apologize, never explain,” advised Lord Fisher, a British admiral. “A very desperate habit – one that is rarely cured,” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. said of apologies, adding, “Nine times out of ten, the first thing a man’s companion knows of his shortcomings is from his apology.” Their advice was bad. A more modern popular approach was that taken by New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia: “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut.”

At some point in their professional careers, most of us say stupid, even offensive things. The quicker the apology is made, the sooner the leader can move on. After he made silly, off-color comment several years ago, Senator John McCain’s response helped save him: “Obviously, I thought it was some way of being funny. It wasn’t funny; it was stupid and cruel. In all due respect, I can’t analyze it for you except to say it was stupid, cruel and insensitive, and I’ve apologized as profusely as I know how, so I don’t know what else I can do.”

Apologies are a useful method to move beyond what might otherwise be a continuing source of pain, injury and aggravation. “A good apology has to be begin with a real connection between the apologizer and the offended person or audience,” according to Patrick Field, an apologies expert quoted in a New York Times article in the art of the apology. A strategic apology is part of a larger repair strategy.

Sometimes an apology is particularly notable because the apologizer isn’t known for apologizing. General George Patton, for example, was forced by General Dwight Eisenhower to apologize to all of his troops after Patton slapped a soldier he thought was malingering during the invasion of Sicily in World War II.

In some cultures – like Korea’s and Japan’s – an apology is a very serious matter and not done lightly. An effective apology is usually specific – not one of the blanket apologies that applies to “anyone who may have been offended by something I said or did but didn’t mean to.” The form of the apology may be there but commitment clearly is not.

The basic rule of apologies is, when necessary, suck it up, be sincere, be specific and be quick.

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