There was the boss who yelled at me for doing what she asked. There was the CEO who threatened my career when I told him that I was leaving for a new company and a major promotion. If you work long enough, at some point you will encounter people who treat you poorly — out of malice or just plain ignorance.
It can be difficult — even painful — to apologize when you have hurt another. But great leaders do it well. Yet I never once had a boss who said, “I am sorry.”
And believe me, many of them had reason to do so — on many occasions. So why do leaders so rarely apologize? Insecurity is usually the stumbling block. Some see it as a sign of weakness. Other worry that saying “sorry” will highlight their imperfections, or that they will lose face.
Now, I am not suggesting you should go around apologizing for every tough decision or rejection. But you should not underestimate the impact of a heartfelt expression of contrition when you have done wrong.
I try to choose my words carefully (which saves me from insulting people most of the time). But I am by no means perfect and will offer a genuine apology when the error was mine. I know how important it is to make things right — even if you do not always agree with everyone.
I believe it is necessary for leaders to take risks. But taking risks means that you also need to master the art of the apology — because sometimes you will really mess up.
Do not get me wrong, I expect the best from everyone I work with and have tough conversations with people all the time. I am referring in this article to decisions or words that unnecessarily hurt someone or are disrespectful.
In those situations, saying “I am sorry” — and meaning it — demonstrates:
Before you can even recognize that a situation requires a sincere apology, you must first consider the feelings of others and put their needs before your own. Vulnerable as you may feel, apologizing is a healthy exercise in humility that helps keep your ego in check and shows you respect others.
Simple human nature makes us want to hide or cover up our offenses. But you must resist that instinct. Step forward and be accountable to others for your actions. With your genuine mea culpa, you acknowledge where the fault lies and do not attempt to deflect the blame or minimize it.
Many leaders talk a good game about encouraging openness within their organization. But you must set the example of transparency if you want others to follow. Offering an apology will bring your error into the light, demonstrating that you play by the same set of rules.
You may worry that an apology will expose your flaws — that you will lose something in the process. But saying “I am sorry” demonstrates that you are human, capable of making mistakes like everyone else. Your team will probably respect you even more for being principled enough to own your actions.
Yes, it can be gut-wrenching to look someone squarely in the eye and say “I am sorry.” But you will — and must — get through it. Removing obstacles is a necessary part of being a leader, especially when that obstacle is you.
If you never apologize, unfortunately, you are the one showing weakness. And you will miss a great opportunity to become a better leader yourself.
Of course, a heartfelt apology is only the first step. If you have truly behaved badly it will take time to rebuild trust. But saying “I am sorry” sends a powerful message. It shows that you care deeply, that you honor and respect your team and colleagues. It is true leadership in action. So go ahead — show them how it is done.
When should leaders say they are sorry?