Leading Means Having To Say You’re Sorry

I have no idea if Erich Segal was right in averring that, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Such matters are far removed from my area of expertise. But I am pretty sure that as a leader there is something inordinately important about taking responsibility for my actions. And, on those (not infrequent) occasions when I make mistakes, in owning them and admitting wrongdoing.

The very fact of assuming this position relegates me, in some people’s minds, to a place of derision these days. To them, I deserve to be consigned to the camp of weak and vulnerable leaders who think it better to apologize than to remain implacable. In this view, apologies have become the telltale signs of pusillanimity, the antitheses of strong and courageous leadership.

What is it about an apology that forces so many leaders across the corporate-political-communal spectrum to retreat to the double-down redoubts of their inner psyches? Why does the prospect of saying, “I’m sorry,” cause leaders and their advisors to contort themselves in ways that would make Gumby jealous?

For many leaders, confessing a mistake is tantamount to providing an opening for enemies to strike them when they are down. Thus, rather than admit an error, it is far better to defend oneself by reaffirming the original position. Doing so is believed to send a message of strength and resoluteness.

This kind of thinking is antiquated and rooted in a militaristic macho mindset that understands leadership to be a zero-sum game. I win only when you lose, and if you were to win, particularly because I was forced into an apology, I would lose, a wholly untenable eventuality. Hence, no regrets; nothing to apologize for.

Instead of owning up, these leaders blame others. This is what the medieval Spanish Jewish philosopher, Joseph Albo, referred to as “self excuse.” Shifting the blame to other individuals or external factors: “I was misinformed;” “I heard this from someone else;” “my team let me down,” may be commonplace, but it is the very antithesis of effective leadership. As Albo said, “self excuse” is not a pretext, because “man was given reason so that he should always watch his conduct…” Leaders must model the kind of behavior they expect from others. Failing to hold themselves accountable, to take personal responsibility sets the tone for others to behave similarly.

In Jewish sources then, admitting a mistake is a sign of strength, not weakness. Despite our many differences, all people transgress, and fallibility is endemic to the human condition. Our very imperfections are what distinguish us from the realm of the divine. “There is no person who does not sin,” records the Bible on more than one occasion. But more importantly, our ability to admit mistakes, to apologize for them, and to self-correct going forward, is what separates us from the animals. “Sin couches at the door,” God tells Cain, “Yet you can be its master.”

Our ability to mid-course correct, to admit our errors, and learn from them, is critical for effective leaders. As the business consultant and author, Patrick Lencioni, makes clear in his book, Getting Naked, when a leader acknowledges her vulnerability and embraces uncommon levels of humility, selflessness and transparency, she builds trust and loyalty among stakeholders and constituents.

No leader can hope to succeed without such trust. For this reason alone those who lead would do well to set aside their antiquated apprehension of apology, to resist the temptation of doubling down or blaming others. Instead, by stepping forward with the confidence to know that everyone makes mistakes, a leader enhances his efficacy exponentially. Followers respect their leaders when they show their humanity. Those who lead must cease the foolish pretense that they are some kind of infallible deity. Part of being a confident and competent leader is a willingness to own up, not dumb down.

Hal Lewis

Read more of Dr. Lewis' writings on leadership at leadershipforimpact.com/blog.