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February 4, 2021

How to Balance Leadership Through Apology

Leadership in the Western World Isn't Driven by Apologies

Much is made in the Western world of the importance of an apology as a precursor to reconciliation.

When we start out as children—and our world is starkly black and white—apology comes, not from inside of us, but from outside of us. It is a statement we are compelled to say to others when we hurt them, under threat of punishment from someone in a position of power, i.e. a parent, a guardian, or an older sibling.


These apologies are rarely meant, rarely come from a place of empathy about the situation or the other person harmed, and rarely lead to long-term resolution of conflicts, hurts, or injuries.

As we grow older, however, we become used to doing everything that we can to respond to conflicts through attack, avoidance, and/or accommodation. Interestingly enough, adults use all three of these methods to get around, get past, and smooth over the need to either give an apology or receive one.

Then, this tendency scales to the workplace; a hard-charging environment concerned only with the acquisition of revenue, the holding of power, the maintenance of position, and continual growth. And when there’s a mistake made, a wrong committed, or an injury to a customer, a client, or a partner, apology becomes a place for liability to lurk in the shadows.

There’s no room for apologies in this environment when people are hurt through conflicts there.

Just get over it, and move on.

Leadership Requires Thinking Differently--About Resolution

But, what if the courage to apologize, much like the courage to take a risk and resolve a conflict in a different way, were a leadership competency, rather than a trapdoor for an executive leader to lose their position?

What if we thought about the process of risk, forgiveness, failure reconciliation, and apology differently?


As was pointed out last week, people get into disputes with other people, but because organizations and workplaces operate at scale, there is little room for the individual to get resolution—or apology—at scale. The only solution is to change the way we operate in organizations at scale, and to shift the conversation around conflict, disagreement, and even injury away from litigation and toward resolution.

The only people who can do that are the people at the top of the hierarchical pyramid. The ones that set the culture of (to paraphrase from John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) “No apologies. It makes us look weak.” The ones that promote, and expand, the image (the myth, if you will) of the hard-charging executive.

We see this beginning to happen with Zappos, and the growing interest in implementing a holocracy system in organizations. A system where there is a flattened hierarchy.

Leadership Begins with Redesign

This is the beginning of rethinking how we redesign organizational myths and cultures.


But, for apologies to be effective, and for the act of apologizing to be an effective leadership competency, there must be three things evident before a mouth opens to give a statement:

  • Sincerity—because the distance between the person affected by a conflict (whether external stakeholder or internal stakeholder) and the person who can give the organizational apology is long, the issue of sincerity in an apology becomes paramount. The only way to close this distance for the leader is for them to actually do some emotional labor and engage with humility.
  • Humility—because of the nature of organizational cultures (governments, businesses, etc.) arrogance is “baked in” to the structure of the organization, its culture and its ways. This is something that the person giving the apology has to break, but this also has to be reinforced by all of the people down from her in the organizational chain. When the leader is humble enough to apologize, but the mid-level manager is not, the chain of apology is broken.
  • Acceptance—because of the nature of power in organizations (power over, not power with) and because of how leaders perceive the products of power (i.e. money, time, etc.) there is little ability to accept the idea that an apology when given might not be accepted by the other party. This puts the organization (a group of the many) at the disposal of the injured party (a group of the one). This lack of ability to accept an unpredictable outcome (and not having built an antifragile organization in the first place) creates the environment where the default thought is “We’ll just go to litigation.” Which is the ultimate power play.

For organizations to continue to develop, scale and grow successfully in the 21st century, leadership training, competencies and even research has to shift in favor of increasing leaders’ development in the three above areas, before an apology-based culture is even considered.

Article written by Jesan Sorrells
Jesan Sorrells serves as the CEO of HSCT Publishing, the home of leadership development platforms, Leadership ToolBox, LeaderBuzz, and LeadingKeys..Backed by over 7 years of direct, in-person training experience with over 15,000+ managers and supervisors across multiple industry verticals, LeadingKeys, Leadership Toolbox, and LeaderBuzz deliver leadership and talent solutions to managers and supervisors of SMB's.
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