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The Surprising Impact of a Leader’s Apology

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Stew Dean // cc by 2.0 //

How leaders and teams benefit from accountability

I will never forget the day a senior leader and operations manager apologized to our entire management team. As the last team member sat down at our bi-weekly meeting this leader said, “Before we get into the agenda, I want to apologize to you. Two months ago I promised I would investigate and resolve the situation with General Hospital. I’m sorry, I have not followed through as promised. Even with the many variables of this situation, I have let you and our staff down. I will be meeting again with the CEO and we will have a resolution very soon.”

You could have heard a pin drop. It’s like the collective tension pent up in the room over the last 6 weeks washed down the drain, and people visibly relaxed. Several present said they appreciated his ownership and accountability and asked how they could help. We let down our guard and pulled together towards our collective goals in a new way.

The leadership lesson for me was the power of apology in regaining credibility. This leader was modeling accountability by delivering an apology that conveyed humility and a respect for us.

The research-based The Leadership Challenge® highlights the importance of a leader’s behavior to credibility. The next time you have to apologize as a leader, keep the below behaviors in mind. How did you score?

  • I set a personal example of what I expect of others.
  • I follow through on the promises and commitments that I make.
  • I ask for feedback on how my actions affect other people’s performance.
  • I ask “What can we learn?” when things don’t go as expected.
  • I treat others with dignity and respect.

An authentic and sincere apology is one way that leaders earn credibility and help restore it when lost. A well delivered apology also builds vulnerability based trust, a necessity for well functioning teams.

Leaders are not just accountable for their personal actions and results, but the actions and results of others and, ultimately, of the organization. As Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “The buck stops here!” For senior leaders, there is no one else who can apologize for your company’s mistakes.

The power of an apology cannot be underestimated in a competitive marketplace and with social media heightening transparency. 

Leaders are not infallible, and an “appropriate” apology, genuinely given and well-executed, builds credibility and team trust—qualities that are essential for individual and organizational success.

The Leadership Challenge® helps leaders mobilize others to want to get extraordinary things done. This highly accessible program approaches leadership as a measurable, learnable, and teachable set of behaviors. It is rooted in the belief that leaders, teams, and organizations improve when ordinary people enable those around them to achieve extraordinary things. Join us in Sonoma, California, for a two-day public workshop and optional facilitator training.

The Leadership Challenge in Sonoma

Tracy Puett

Tracy Puett is a past FlashPoint employee who's passionate about curriculum design, facilitation, and coaching.