How to Apologize as a Leader

a leader leaving an apologetic sticky note

He was one of the toughest players to ever block a shot, throw an elbow, or thrust a hip. A four-time NBA All Star, he amassed nearly 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds.

But his signature move had more to do with acting than playing.

In 12 grueling seasons, Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons made up for his marginal vertical leap and sluggish feet by becoming a master at posturing, posing, and pretending to be fouled. The “Laimbeer Flop” became legendary. A grimacing Laimbeer would often go tumbling to the boards in reaction to the slightest tap from opponents.

Rightly or wrongly, the whistle often went his way.

Laimbeer is known for playing 685 consecutive games. He’s also known for his back-to-back championships. What he is NOT known for is apologizing. It’s been said that no other NBA player endured more boos, heckling and unflattering nicknames. Yet with so many opportunities to show regret, he never did … on or off the court.

The towering center was the baddest of the Bad Boys, and he offered no apologies for his controversial moves. But truthfully, his adamant refusal to admit fouls, mistakes, or bending the rules is not all that uncommon in sports — or in leadership.

Too often, leaders in business and government don’t own up to their mistakes. They gloss over the offense, shift the blame, or cite plausible deniability. At best, they issue a statement that alludes to the incident without conceding responsibility for it.

Why is that?

Because, as Elton John sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” Apologizing is hard. Really hard. Something inside us strongly resists admitting we’re wrong. Which is a problem because we’re all wrong sometime.

Yet, when we make a mistake or hurt somebody (even unintentionally), we’re obliged to remedy the situation by saying we’re sorry and maybe offering restitution. I mean, isn’t that the social contract?

Sounds easy enough, right? But apologizing to those we’ve disappointed or harmed is never easy. Even within a small team or a social relationship, it’s daunting. And when you’re a well-known leader or public figure, it’s exponentially harder.

Here are five roadblocks that make it tough for leaders to apologize.

5 Reasons Leaders Struggle to Apologize

1. We See It as Weakness

To many leaders, making an apology equals weakness. Highly successful people often have the need to be right, to be the smartest person in the room. They want to always be seen as strong, powerful, and in control. Ironically, taking responsibility for our mistakes can actually be seen as a sign of strength, not weakness. But lowering their guard and admitting error is so out of character for some leaders, it’s nearly impossible.

2. We’re Afraid of Hurting Our Self-Image

Leaders are often self-made success stories. They’re proud of what they’ve achieved. They don’t want anything to tarnish their image, so admitting they’re not perfect is scary. It’s been said that to apologize is to set aside our pride long enough to admit our imperfections. But for some leaders, being vulnerable feels far too dangerous. It means admitting they are flawed and fallible, something they’re reluctant to do.

3. We’re Afraid of the Consequences

Many leaders are afraid if they take the risk of apologizing, they may be rejected, demoted, or ostracized. The fear of losing position, prestige, and the admiration of others is very common and understandable. Nobody wants to have their reputations sullied or their abilities doubted. Some people fear that by admitting fault they’ll lose the respect of their clients, peers or employers: “What if people think I’m incompetent? What if I lose my status or influence?” What if I have to step down or take a pay cut?”

4. We Lack Awareness

Unfortunately, some people just don’t get it. We’re so busy and self-absorbed that sometimes we don’t realize the damage we do or pain that we cause. Many folks don’t apologize because they’re unaware of how their actions affect others. Frankly, they don’t think there’s anything to apologize for. This kind of blind spot can affect leaders at all levels, all the way up to executives on corporate boards. Lots of high-achievers are so task oriented, they fail to see the effect their blunders or behaviors have on others.

5. We’re Unable to Empathize

This is closely related to the previous roadblock. Perhaps the most common reason leaders have difficulty apologizing is a lack of empathy for others. Empathy means “to understand and share the feelings of another.” Basically, it’s the capacity that enables us to put ourselves in the place of the person we’ve hurt. An employee. A team member. A client. A spouse. For any apology to be truly sincere, we must be able to imagine how our actions, words, or attitudes have affected the other party or group.

All of these obstacles are linked to that enormous part of human nature that just plain hates swallowing our pride. Making an apology means overriding some pretty basic character flaws we all possess to some degree or another.

Why Should Leaders Apologize?

We’ve all had instances of apologizing to a family member or neighbor. Although it was important to you and the other party, it was likely not a matter of public record. But when a high-profile leader apologizes, it’s often viewed (and critiqued) as a “performance” — one in which every word, nuance, and facial expression may be scrutinized. With that kind of pressure, it’s understandable why some leaders prefer to skip it. But that’s not a good option. Even though the risks are great, the rewards can be even greater. All the potential pitfalls don’t diminish the necessity or the value of admitting our mistakes. Sincere, heartfelt apologies benefit both parties — the initiator and the receiver.

1. How Apologies Benefit the Receiver

A sincere apology shows the receiver that they are respected and that the initiator cares about their feelings. They realize the initiator did not intend to hurt them, and that they’ll be treated more fairly in the future. This affirmation is a huge boost to their wounded self-esteem. By accepting an apology, the receiver shows the initiator (and themselves) that they have a generous spirit, and are giving the relationship another chance.

2. How Apologies Benefit the Initiator

They feel relieved, at peace, and guilt free. They’re not carrying around emotional baggage and unresolved issues. When they ask the receiver for forgiveness, they can drop the burden of culpability. And that’s true whether or not the other party accepts their apology. The initiator’s only job is to deliver the request sincerely. Bonus: The more they do it, the easier it gets. Soon, it’s part of their natural leadership rhythm.

3. How Apologies Benefit All Involved

Tensions are relieved. Relationships are restored. Forward progress can resume. An apology (especially from a leader or authority figure) has the power to fix a thorny issue and soften the hearts of even the most offended person or group. Both the person asking for forgiveness and the person granting it experience a type of healing. It’s a humbling win-win experience that can positively improve our outlook on life.

According to psychotherapist Dr. Beverly Engel, an apology does more than just express politeness, it’s “an important social ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person.” Best of all, it’s a true win-win. Writing in Psychology Today, Engel explains, “Apologizing is one of the healthiest, most positive actions we can ever take — for ourselves, the other person, and the relationship.”

How to Apologize as a Leader: 6 Key Components

When you’ve harmed someone (intentionally or otherwise), a genuine, well-timed apology demonstrates you care about them, validates their emotions, and rebuilds trust. It not only stops the deterioration of that particular relationship, it also sends a good signal about you to others in your sphere of influence. Being proactive and taking responsibility for your actions (or those of the group you represent) can often keep a problem from escalating.

On the other hand, an insincere apology shows disrespect, erodes trust, and exacerbates broken or strained relationships. In fact, people are more offended by a fake apology than if you said nothing at all.

So then, what makes for a GREAT apology?

There’s no perfect formula, no magic mantra, but an effective apology should include most if not all of these six components:

  1. Expression of regret: Give a clear, sincere “I’m sorry” statement.
  2. Acknowledgment of responsibility: Make an unequivocal “mea culpa.”
  3. Request for forgiveness: Be humble. Ask them for mercy.
  4. Explanation of what went wrong: Tell them how and why you failed.
  5. Assurance the behavior won’t be repeated: Tell them it’s over.
  6. Offer of repair or reparations: Ask, “How can I help fix this?”

Surveys suggest that the single most important component of the six is the “acknowledgement of responsibility.” Say out loud that it was your fault, that you made the mistake, that there was no excuse for it, and that you own it.

Why Apologizing as a Leader Matters

So just how bad was the “bad boy”?

Let’s put it this way. There was a video game made for Super Nintendo entitled Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball. It’s been described as a cross between Death Race 2000 and basketball. Incidentally, Laimbeer went on to a very successful coaching career. Awarded “coach of the year” in his first season, he led the Detroit Shock to three WNBA titles and was twice named the league’s best coach.

You and I probably won’t have a video game named after us. But if we’re quick to apologize when we commit a foul (or offense), we can inspire others to do the same.

And that might be the biggest win of our careers.

Need help learning how to apologize as a leader? Reach out today for a free conversation.