Education Opinion

Can Leaders Say ‘I’m Sorry’?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 31, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It is really easy to step over the line. Mistakes come naturally to some of us; we can be forgiven if we ask, by those who believe our intentions are good and our regret sincere. Those of us in the public eye know our mistakes will be noticed. Whether we can put them behind us is the question. We’ve obviously been watching the presidential campaign unfold over the last year. A thought about apologies and sincerity has been simmering within us. Facts have been contorted. Errors have been made. Vulgarities spoken. Offensive language proclaimed from podiums. Bad judgments calls abound. All this while our nation goes about choosing its national leader. But, the simple two words that keep relationships together have rarely been said. It is clearly unfashionable or unforgivable to say “I’m sorry”. When Megyn Kelly questioned Donald Trump on his calling her a “bimbo”, he eventually said “Excuse me”, as if he had cut in line in front of someone or uttered a noise impolite in public.

‘Well Fed Slaves’
So if this has been in our heads for months, why raise it now? Well, we know and love a 90 year old woman whose source of truth on most things is Bill O’Reilly, the Fox news host. She stays current by watching his show and parrots his views as truth. She shares his insights and analysis over dinners and on the phone while we assess what can slide and what needs to be confronted. She thought Michelle Obama’s speech on Monday night was moving and powerful. So did we. It must have been questioned by some whether she had her history correct when she spoke of slaves building the White House. So, Bill O’Reilly checked it out for his viewers. The following night, O’Reilly confirmed that slaves had been laborers for the construction of the White House. But, for whatever reason, he went on to say they had been “well fed”. Really? Now what follows? How does one walk such a statement back? Words can hurt. Mean people want them to.

An Honest Apology
It brings us to the meaningful words that so seldom get placed exactly where and when they are needed most. And, oh yes, all of us can tell whether they are sincere based on the way they are said. Is attrition present or is it an escape approach from a tough conversation? Are they said in a way that implies change might follow or that it is a trivial issue worthy of quick passage?

We have been wondering about leaders using these two powerful words. Is there room in the domain of leadership today for them? Or have we moved to a place where they are a sign of weakness? Will we follow leaders who make mistakes of a size that calls for an apology? As we paused to consider that question, we were hard pressed to come up with a leader who survived a sincere and merited apology. But, over and over, leaders survive without offering one. We now have learned that we aren’t the only ones who have held questions about this issue. In 2012, an article in Forbes magazine addressed the very same thing. The authors, Doug Guthrie and Sudhir Venkatesh, wrote:

We are frequently taught that leaders, especially aspiring leaders, should hide weaknesses and mistakes. This view is flawed. It is not only good to admit you are wrong when you are; but also it can also be a powerful tool for leaders--actually increasing legitimacy and, when practiced regularly, can help to build a culture that actually increases solidarity, innovation, openness to change and many other positive features of organizational life.

The article was entitled “Creative Leadership: Humility and Being Wrong”. And, it was inspired by the 2004 presidential campaign. Ironic, isn’t it? It is worth a quick read. They argue that authenticity as a leader relates to one’s comfort with humility. That, too, is a virtue not extolled in leadership preparation programs. Of course, it takes a dose of courage to admit mistakes openly, in public but that leaders who can step into that arena develop authenticity with their followers and discover opportunities they didn’t know existed. And, ultimately, they suggest that it is from this source that creativity arises.

Mistakes Happen. Apologies Should Matter.
We have no idea how O’Reilly will handle the backlash to his comment. But, we will be sure our 90 year old friend knows that being well fed does not mean free. Actually, and painfully, it is language used for the other living beings we own. It holds not respect and it offers not dignity or equality. But, we know how easy it is to make a mistake and we are experienced with “I’m sorry”. The words can heal and that it surely something we need these days. The words can give hope. And they can hold relationships together. They can’t be used too often or their merit wears down. But, when it is deserved, when a leader can honestly say (s)he was wrong, we don’t give up on them so quickly.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.