Apology 101: Make things right
You know you made the right decision. And the decision was well made. The problem is the results were not.
So now you’re on the hot seat. People are clamoring for your head. What do you do?
Every good apology has three operative elements: acknowledgment, acceptance and amends.
- Acknowledge the wrong. First, say you are sorry for what occurred. People may be suffering. Acknowledge the pain and the loss. Make it known you understand their pain. Demonstrate empathy by showing compassion.
- Accept the consequences. Shoulder the blame. Make it known that you hold yourself accountable and will work to rectify the situation. In the wake of the failed invasion in the Bay of Pigs, President John Kennedy, just four months in office, said, “Victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.”
- Make amends. People are disappointed, frustrated, and maybe even disillusioned. They don’t want speeches; they want actions. Talk about what you and your team will do immediately. Get working on the problems and take corrective measures.
Keep in mind an operative principle of apologies: "It’s not about you. It’s about them." A leader who discusses everything he did to avoid the mistake may tell the truth, but those suffering do not want to hear it. Instead, they want to know that the person responsible for the error is focused on making things better.
Good apologies all contain one key element: no finger-pointing. A senior leader often makes an apology, even when she may not be directly responsible. But as the top person, it becomes your job to own the situation. So you don't point fingers. Instead, you swallow your pride, and you take the heat.
Anyone can make excuses except those in charge. “Never ruin a good apology with an excuse,” said Ben Franklin. You can provide the backstory, but when you do make it clear that you are not excusing yourself, you are merely giving context. Own the decision and its consequences.
Doing this will make people recognize that you have something we all want: a backbone. By making amends and correcting the situation, you create a path forward for your team, your organization, and maybe your reputation.
No leader makes the right calls at the right time. But great leaders make things right when things go wrong. As Winston Churchill once quipped, "Success in life is the ability to move from one mistake to another without losing enthusiasm." Defeat is not the end unless you let it define you.
There are, of course, mistakes that require the leader to step down. But, in the grand scheme of things, those occasions are rare. When they involve moral transgression, removal from the position is a good thing. When they include mistakes in judgment, regard them as "teachable moments."
Apologies are but the first step toward creating a better future. Forget this at your peril.
John Baldoni is a globally recognized leadership speaker, certified Master Corporate Executive Coach, and author of 15 books that have been translated into 10 languages. In 2021, the International Federation of Learning and Development named Baldoni a World-Class Mentor and named him to its Hall of Fame. Also in 2021, Global Gurus ranked him a Top 20 global leadership expert, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2018, Inc.com named him a Top 100 speaker, and in 2014 Inc.com listed him as a Top 50 leadership expert.
Baldoni’s books include "Grace Notes: Leading in an Upside-Down World," "GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us," and "MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership." For more information about Baldoni’s speaking and coaching, please visit his website.