By Michael Gunther

It’s always interesting when leaders have clearly made a mistake or the wrong decision, or maybe communicated inappropriately, and yet, will not apologize. Does apologizing make them feel weak? Do they think they will lose some of their power? Are they afraid to admit they don’t have all the answers? A couple recent encounters made me ponder this issue.

After waiting for a business owner for about 20 minutes at our prearranged location, I left a voicemail and texted that I had to run to make another appointment and I wouldn’t be able to wait any longer and meet that day. I’d already left, and I got a phone call from this individual saying he switched locations and that he had texted me, so I turned around and went to the new location. Once I parked, I looked at my phone, feeling bad that I’d somehow missed his message. But I didn’t have any new message about a location change—no new messages at all. When I met this individual, he said he’d actually texted the wrong number but it wasn’t really his fault. No apology for the inconvenience to me; he felt he was still right. Yes, this really did happen, and I have witnessed this behavior often with him and his employees.

In contrast, I was recently at a meeting in which the business owner had approached a situation really poorly and offended some of his management team. He soon realized he wasn’t getting their buy-in or the response he wanted. He apologized, and explained he was just trying to figure out a solution to the problem and needed their assistance. All of the sudden the mood changed, and the team jumped right in to help. Collectively they came up with numerous ways to solve their existing business issue.

We’re all human, and as leaders we don’t have to have all the answers. And yes, we are all going to make mistakes and sometimes push the boundaries of appropriate communication or behavior. My belief is that the strongest leaders are the ones who own the situation or mistakes, apologize if necessary, and move forward to try to get the outcomes they need. These leaders not only earn the respect from their team, but tend to move forward faster both in their professional growth and careers.

Now I’m not suggesting leaders who don’t learn from their mistakes and continue to make them (apologizing for their errors) will be strong leaders. You need to build your competence from each mistake so that it doesn’t happen again. Only then will your troops rally behind you.

I recently came upon 8 Keys of Excellence, geared toward helping youth become stronger individuals and leaders. One of the 8 keys is OWNERSHIP—Take responsibility for your actions. It stated:

  • Be responsible for your thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. “Own” the choices you make and the results that follow.
  • Ownership is our willingness to take responsibility for the choices we make. When we take responsibility for our choices, others know they can count on us and we earn their respect.
  • If you tell a friend you’ll meet him at a certain time but you’re two hours late because you were hanging out with another friend, take responsibility for your choice. Don’t make up excuses like “I couldn’t help it…Billy just wouldn’t let me go.” Take ownership by saying, “I was wrong not to meet you as planned or call you when I realized I’d be late.”
  • When we take ownership of everything we do and say and stop blaming things outside ourselves for situations that occur in our lives, we have greater control. We may not be able to control everything that happens in our lives but we can control how we respond to what happens. By taking ownership of our actions we create a huge shift in our life.
  • Ownership is a whole-life concept. We can take ownership of our education, our relationships, our fitness, our fun—all areas of our life. And when we take ownership we take pride and feel confident and fulfilled

So, maybe responsibility and ownership are keys to being a successful leader as well. Isn’t that what an apology truly is, taking ownership of your role in the situation?

Bottom Line

You are human and you will make mistakes. You may say things that you probably shouldn’t, or do things that negatively impact your team. Step up, own your actions, say you’re sorry or admit fault, and go on to become a better leader.

Michael Gunther is Founder and President of Collaboration LLC, a team of highly skilled business professionals who are dedicated to assisting proactive business owners to build profitable, sustainable businesses through results-oriented education and consulting services. 

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