Should Leaders Apologize?




When we wrong someone, even unintentionally, we can easily realize when we are expected to apologize. The dynamics behind it are simple: the wronged becomes, or feels, entitled to our admission of error and expression of regret.

The purpose of the apology then is to seek forgiveness, reflect and change behavior, and either mend relationships or move on.

However, as a leader, when a wrong is ascribed to you, either directly, or through a wrong of your followers or partners, the dynamics of an apology change completely and take on a different role and purpose. Understanding them is crucial for deciding whether an apology is needed, and if yes, at what level and for what purpose.

A Leader’s Apology – The Two Factors You Should Consider

As a leader, you are responsible for the actions and behavior of your followers and the reputation of the organization and the ideals that it holds dear and aligns its brands with. Hence, the answer to the question “should leaders apologize?” is complex. It depends on various factors, and today, learning how to apologize effectively is crucial to the success of your organization and should be a core part of every organization’s leadership training programs.

The first and foremost of these factors is the type of leadership you use or are known for.

For instance, by authority, or by example and transformation? Whichever it is, your apology brings it out in the public, and has the power to reinforce certain norms, expectations, and behaviors in your organization.

For example, if you believe in leading by example, then realizing when a wrong has repercussions for your entire organization, or the people you directly influence, and apologizing quickly and effectively can have transformative and long-lasting effects. As a leader, you are not just responsible for your own behavior, but also for that of your followers. And when push comes to shove, your customers, your employees, the media, and people in general look to you for leadership in apologizing.

So understanding your leadership style, the degree of damage, the context of the situation, who was guilty, and how to avoid blame-shifting and show a united front and exemplify your organizational values and principles, and the kind of behavior that is accepted within and by your organization and its people—all play an integral role in the decision to apologize, its timing, and content of your apology.  

Simply put, by apologizing appropriately—at the right time and for the right reason–you can reiterate your culture and its values and exemplify a behavior that is acceptable for all.

Remember: as a leader, when you apologize, you speak for and to your followers. Your words have broad implications. Your act of apology is not carried out in isolation, at the level of just the individual, but also at the level of the institution and the followers you represent. Hence, a bad image of your organization, as a result of an ill-contrived apology, can also jeopardize the careers of your employees.

Hence, an apology is also political, where every word and expression becomes part of the public record and hence open to scrutiny and public discussion.

Understanding the context also determines the stage for the apology: private, organizational, or public. At each, the stakes grow higher and graver: for you, for your employees and fans, and for the organization. Effective leadership training can aid you in quickly understanding the dynamics at play.

The second factor is your readiness and your ability to respond to scrutiny.

A simple apology can go a long way; however, in an age where the speed of communication and its reach are compounded by social media, your words and the ability to quickly choose them and communicate them well are crucial to ensuring that your role and credibility as a leader are further established, or at least remain salvageable.

All this depends on how well you execute an apology, which depends on how well you’ve understood the need for a public apology.

Understanding The Dynamics Of A Public Apology

Apologizing is a mark of high emotional intelligence. However, an apology puts you in a vulnerable situation that is difficult, humiliating, and even risky as you are expected to be both strong and competent, and yet apologize earnestly so it is acceptable. Hence, to express one, you need to assess if there are strong reasons to apologize. Apologizing often or lightly erodes both credibility and authority.

Apology as a leader is either to acknowledge a fact or to take responsibility for an act. This brings us to the purpose of your apology.

A leader’s apology can serve one or more of the following purposes:

  • Individual – You made a mistake, and are apologizing publically to seek forgiveness from your followers.
  • Institutional – One or more people from the organization were involved. Your apology is directed at avoiding internal shaming and blame-shifting which can wreak havoc with both internal team cohesion and the reputation of your company.
  • Relational– The actions of one person or a group you’re responsible for have harmed another person or a group outside of the organization. The apology is to find a way to repair relationships with the affected party.

In all of these, moral remorse can also come into play where you experience remorse and apologize to seek forgiveness and redemption.

In Conclusion

There is no simple answer to the question “should leaders apologize”. It depends on various factors, the biggest of all the leader’s assessment of whether an apology is needed, why she/he has to do it, and the purpose it will serve. A deeper understanding of all these will aid you in choosing words and expressions that will resonate with your audience, and ensure your apology is accepted—clearing the way for a better future.

If you believe you need further guidance, for yourself or your team, and are looking for leadership training courses to get started, check our leadership training courses for better leadership skills and management.