I’m Sorry

I'm Sorry“Love Story” (1970) was a good movie.

It gave us a young Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw. It was a sentimental ‘date movie’… with lots of tears at the end.

It also gave us one of the most insipid and ridiculous move lines of all time – “love means never having to say you’re sorry”.

Frankly, in all these years, I’ve never understood that concept. If you truly love someone, you don’t want to hurt them. And if you have hurt them, you generally want to make amends by apologizing. Sometimes, profusely.

Strangely, this crazy notion of ‘never having to apologize’ has found its way into organizational (and political) life and morphed into:

“Real leaders don’t apologize!”

According to this notion, apologizing conveys weakness. Saying you’re sorry means you’ve given up control. Leaders who apologize have lost the “game”. To apologize is to be humiliated.

What a bunch of hogwash!

Apologizing may be one of the most powerful tools in a leader’s ‘tool-kit’.

Leaders who can’t or won’t apologize may as well be carrying a sign that says, “I’m perfect and never make mistakes” and “I really don’t care about you.”

Saying you’re sorry acknowledges that you’ve made a mistake. A sincere apology means you recognize that your behavior has caused pain, discomfort, or inconvenience. Apologizing signifies you screwed up and you want to repair the damage.

The ability to admit your mistakes… understand the impact of your actions or behavior on others… demonstrate respect for others… and show that you care is at the core of Leading with HECKHumility… Empathy… Civility… and Kindness.

A good apology is a thing of beauty… a great apology has the power to heal.

And, as with many things in life, there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to apologize.

Let’s consider some of the “bad” ways to apologize.

  • The “Weasel” Apology – “We regret that you may have been inconvenienced by our actions.”  Or, “We’re sorry if this upset you.”

Unless you’re a member of some royal family, the “we” apology is an attempt to deflect personal blame or accountability.

“Weasel” Apologies hide behind a collective group. Great leaders step up and personally own their screw-ups and the mistakes of their followers.

  • The “Non-Apology” Apology – “If my behavior offended you, I apologize.”  Or, “We regret that we may not have lived up to your expectations.”

There is no conditional “if” in a real apology. Using “if” and “may” in an apology diminishes the impact of your bad behavior or your inappropriate actions on others. Expressing remorse while employing the words “if” and “may” is a cop-out.

  • The “Pseudo-Apology” – “I’m sorry that I yelled at you during our staff meeting, but I’m under a lot of stress these days.”

This type of apology seeks to deflect responsibility or accountability for your actions.  It’s an excuse… not an apology.

So, what’s a great apology?

A great apology is:

  • Sincere – It comes from the heart. It acknowledges that you’ve made a mistake. It doesn’t offer excuses for your behavior.
  • Simple – “I’m sorry.” Or, “I apologize” are real apologies.  They’re personal and meaningful. Just saying, “Sorry” or “Apologies all around”, is too simple; there is no personal accountability in these abbreviated apologies.
  • Specific – Blanket apologies or apologies that cover a host of transgressions are simply devices to get out of taking personal ownership for your actions.  Great apologies are specific; they focus on how you messed up and what you will do to prevent it from happening again in the future.
  • Selfless – It focuses on the other person… not on you. Great apologies seek to make things right for the other person.

A really great apology is:

I’m sorry for yelling at you during our staff meeting. There is no excuse for my behavior. I can only say that it won’t happen again.”


“I apologize for the late delivery of your order. I take full responsibility for our mistake.  We are shipping your product this morning via express courier and it is scheduled to be delivered to your facility by noon tomorrow.”

Sincere… Simple… Specific… and Selfless.

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