The Art of Apology

To err is human. And anyone reading this (I assume) is human. That said, we’ve all made mistakes. Sometimes we err in competence or in judgment, but no matter how we err, it’s critical as a leader to acknowledge our shortcomings and apologize. It’s never been fun to do so (remember the joy of fessing up to decking your sibling in the head with a toy as child?). But a lot of “must-do’s” in life aren’t exactly comfortable.

Why is it so hard to apologize?  Let me count the reasons …

  1. We’re embarrassed. After all, a mistake|failure|offense may be blush-inducing.
  2. We’re afraid to look incompetent. If we admit our mistakes, will we be seen as weak?
  3. It’s risky. If you admit you did wrong, you’re taking responsibility for the err and that can make you liable for whatever the fall-out from that mistake may be.


With so much at stake, do we HAVE to apologize? Short answer: Yes. Because:

  1. It acknowledges the issue, and presents an opportunity to “right” an inappropriate action.
  2. You show you’re human—at that, a human with integrity and humility.
  3. Apologizing is the first step to restoring a damaged relationship.


An apology is not an apology is not an apology … With that, the secrets to a good apology include:

  1. Timing. Don’t wait too long (that’s disrespectful) but don’t apologize too soon, either, when the receiving party may be so blinded by emotions that he|she can’t process your apology.
  2. It should go without saying, but be genuine and sincere in delivering your apology.
  3. Be specific. Don’t “talk around” the mistake. Address the specific wrongdoing head-on.
  4. Be direct. Approach the person you wronged. Don’t have a middle-man or messenger do it . Also, the more personal the delivery the better; i.e. face-to-face meeting or handwritten note vs. e-mail or phone call.
  5. Take accountability.  Own up to the wrong, don’t pass blame, and don’t make excuses.
  6. Learn from this uncomfortable, perhaps painful experience. You’re never too old or too high up the totem pole to determine ways to assure the apology-worthy mistake is never repeated.


Not enough people talk about what you SHOULD NOT do in circumstances. People are too busy telling you what to do. That said, the worst things you can do (or fail to do) include:

  1. Pretend the mistake never occurred.
  2. Pass blame.
  3. Be dishonest.
  4. Get defensive.


We all make mistakes (miss a deadline, reporting error, miscommunication, bad judgment, personally offend someone, etc.).  Especially in early years of leadership, lack of experience can hinder.  However, there can be a silver lining. I think there’s a honeymoon period during early years of leadership, allowing additional understanding and tolerance of shortcomings.  And, it is critical for emerging leaders to establish fundamental habits of accountability, humility, and integrity that will carry through as positions increase in accountability and complexity.  At most every level of leadership, there are high expectations.  But, no one expects perfection.  At the end of the day, it is still a human endeavor.

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