Saying You’re Sorry, Part II: Apology As High-Road Leadership

worried businessmanWhen you are looking for good leadership, one of the most discerning things to ask about is whether the leader can apologize and take responsibility for repairing relationships and situations. It seems, however, that the path to making an apology is strewn with obstructions. Here are a few: Leaders may fear that an apology will make them seem weak rather than powerful. Those in positions of power are often removed or even protected from hearing negative feedback and thus don’t know when an apology is needed. Leaders don’t understand the anatomy of apology and thus do it ineffectively. Leaders can over-identify with their up-power roles and forget their capacity to cause great harm. When given role power, leaders tend to lose touch with their natural empathy and compassion. Leaders can understand and use power as control, manipulation, force, and exploitation. In this understanding of power, an apology isn’t even on the screen of a leader’s awareness.

Just as increased responsibility accompanies increased power, so the power of apology increases when genuinely offered by a leader. By way of reassurance, it seems that in actual practice, making an apology reduces the likelihood of legal action. Effective leaders make genuine apologies. Effective apologizers model what could be called “high-road leadership.”

Here’s an inspiring story from Canada as described by Jocelyn Orr.

“Sitting in the Hakomi training circle during the ‘right use of power’ segment taught by Cedar Barstow, we were instructed on the five aspects of a good apology (recognition, responsibility, remorse, restitution, repetition). I realized that the hearing I had attended as moral support to one of my clients had quite closely followed these guidelines.

“My client and I sat together in a small room with two other women; one a lawyer representing Canada (who referred to herself as ‘Canada’ throughout the hearing), and another who was the time and record keeper. The agenda was clearly outlined to my client and the process began by Canada’s opening remarks. Canada spoke in the first person and she gently and kindly articulated recognition of the terrible wrongs that she, Canada, had inflicted upon my client. She spoke in general terms but acknowledged that the meeting we were about to participate in was to recognize the specific injuries inflicted upon this woman. Canada took full responsibility for what my client had suffered, and she expressed remorse. We then went forward with the hearing, which required my client to speak of her personal abuse and suffering. Often Canada would stop the process to ask clarifying questions or to gently give the survivor whatever time she needed to gather herself and continue. Canada had specific questions, but my client was generally free to tell her story in her own way and time.

“Canada concluded the meeting with closing remarks which again expressed recognition, responsibility and remorse for the terrible experiences and loss of childhood my client suffered. She spoke of the inadequacy of this form of restitution, but stated that this was the best she, as a nation, could do at this point in our history. ‘No sum of money will ever fully compensate you for your suffering, and for that I am so very sorry,’ she repeated. I was brought to tears by the experience. As my client and I left the building, she expressed her feelings to me: ‘You know, the money is really of no consequence. Having this experience is what I really needed. I feel my country has apologized to me, and I feel a greater degree of healing as a result.’ “

For leaders—and we are all leaders in some aspects of our lives—who are dedicated to right uses of power, the practice of apology has proactive value. John Kador (pp. 223-224 and 239) describes three evolutionary shifts that accompany the practice of apology.

First, “practicing apology challenges ingrained attitudes about power and accountability.” As a leader you must come to see that power requires your accountability. Granting you executive immunity is simply a way of helping you avoid your responsibility.

“Dealing with emotions of apology” comes next. As a leader you must learn to recognize when you have caused harm, be willing to bear knowing the harm you have caused without getting lost in shame, and be capable of the ego vulnerability of offering an apology even when you don’t know how your apology will be received. Finally, you must be able to self-correct. This is true, nondefensive self-awareness.

The third requirement is cultivating “a disposition favorable to personal transparency.” Learning the emotional and practical aspects of apology serves more than the particular relationship it is attempting to repair. Apology also significantly shifts our understanding of power toward a new paradigm in which we use it with wisdom and skill to heal and repair harm, evolve situations and relationships, and promote the common good.

Apologies may be as simple as expressing remorse for stepping on someone’s foot or as deep and complex as apologizing for national abuses of power to minorities or other down-power groups: American Indians, blacks, military women who have been raped, aboriginal peoples, children who have been abused by the clergy, or victims of genocide. Apologies can be as interpersonal as between mother and daughter or as multipersonal as a representative of an organization apologizing for the offenses of many in the organization.

Here are two personal stories. The first is a simple interaction between my 7-year-old goddaughter and me; the second has a larger context.

Batia Rose, age 7, my goddaughter, usually has my full attention for several hours after school on Tuesdays. This Tuesday, however, I had a few things I needed to do, and so we didn’t get as long as usual to play with the dolls. From her point of view, the dolls need to get fed and dressed and have a chance to play. We use blankets to make a house. We light candles around the room. It is elaborate. This Tuesday we got the house made, lit the candles, and got the dolls dressed, but there was no time to play. Batia was upset.

“Why did we do all this when we didn’t have time to play? I don’t want to just sit and look at how beautiful it is!” she said.

“You feel kind of cheated, huh?” I replied.

“Yes. I want my time to play.”

She lay down on the floor, sobbing. I sat and waited. After a while I could hear her quieting herself.

“You’re calming yourself down. That’s a good thing to do.”


“Cedar, I have an idea for next time.”

“What is that?”

“Well, next time you have things you have to do, you could tell me how long it will take and how much time we’ll have left.”

“That’s a really thoughtful suggestion. That way you won’t be taken by surprise like today. I’ll be happy to do that next time. And I am sorry that you felt hurt today because I didn’t tell you what was happening.”

Our relationship was quickly repaired.

Marian is a Native American elder from a tribe in New Mexico. We met at a gender reconciliation workshop led by Cynthia Brix and Will Keepin. Gender reconciliation is brave, intense, and vulnerable work. The personal hurt and anger shared need a very safe container. Marian sat across the room from me. The warmth of her smile and the compassion in her eyes were potent. She radiated safety. She offered a native prayer in support of the earth and the best of humanity.

I sought her out at lunch time for a conversation I was longing to have. I asked her if I could talk with her about something that lay heavy on my heart. She nodded, and I spoke.

“For 25 years I have been a member of a group of people who do outdoor ceremonial dances in which we ‘call the four directions,’ drum and rattle, and dance together around a central pole,” I said. “Obviously, we are including things that have come from what we understand about native traditions. I know that many Native Americans rightly feel that white people co-opt and trivialize their sacred ways. If you came to our ceremony, I don’t know how you would feel. But drumming and our understanding of the four directions are very important and meaningful to us. We are grateful. I don’t know if I have any right, but I want to ask for your personal permission to use these things.”

I paused. Marian nodded. I continued.

“I promise that I will never trivialize these things. I tell you that the Native American influence has been a great gift to us. The drum has taught us about honoring and entraining to the heartbeat of community. Feeling the energies and guidance of the geographical directions has reconnected us to the beauty and wisdom of the earth.”

Long pause. Another nod.

“There’s one other thing. Can I say more?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“My ancestors arrived in New England in the mid-1600s. They received help and learned how to live on this new land from local natives. My ancestors were white people who then treated your people as less than human. My ancestors stole your people’s land, disobeyed treaties, killed your people, imprisoned your people, and destroyed your cultures. And we have not yet made it right. We came to America to escape persecution and then went against our own values of freedom and pluralism. I offer you my personal apology.”

Pause. I saw tears in Marian’s eyes.

“I rededicate myself to helping people learn how to use their power and influence to repair situations both big and small that have caused harm and suffering.”

Marian nodded.

“Thank you for receiving these words, Marian.”

Marian spoke through tears.

“I am one who goes out to see what’s going on outside the reservation,” she said. “I come back and sometimes tell the elders about what I see and experience. We know that what we find out there we will also find in our tribe, and what we find in our tribe we will also find out there.”

“What stories will you be bringing back from this workshop?” I asked.

“I will tell stories that they will hear,” she said. “I will tell them that I met this woman. I will tell them what you just said. They may be surprised. Hopefully, they will receive and accept your words. Thank you.”

In our book, Living in the Power Zone, my husband, Reynold Ruslan Feldman, and I talk about what we call the “power zone.” This is a range of responses to situations that are discerning, healthy, appropriate, and skillful. There are a number of power parameters that we suggest you explore. For example, how do you tend to respond on the continuum that runs between being directive and responsive, or persisting and letting go, or task-focused and relationship-focused, or firmly boundaried and flexibly boundaried? (page 73)

Effective, respectful, and skillful leaders have honed their ability to respond to situations by discerning what is appropriate along each continuum. Less effective and skillful leaders get stuck in habitual responses that are appropriate for some situations but not for others. For example, they place such high value on being responsive as leaders that they can’t shift to being directive when the task or team requires it.

Leaders who abuse their power get stuck in responses from the extremes of each continuum. For example, leaders who are extremely task-focused (or profit-focused) become manipulative, forceful, and exploitive. Leaders who are extremely relationship focused abuse their power by taking advantage of friendships, crossing boundaries, controlling, shaming, and/or letting a task fall apart. Both task and relationship are necessary. It is habitual behavior at the extremes that causes great harm and suffering.

In thinking about it, apologizing is another power parameter. Some leaders over-apologize. They may do so for accidentally brushing against someone. They apologize for sitting in a chair that later someone else wanted. They apologize for opening the window to let in some fresh air. They apologize as a strategy for deflecting conflict or making sure everyone likes them.

Many years ago, as a new administrator, I thought that if I apologized first, others would join me and share the responsibility. Oops! In my organization, when I apologized, I was happily given all the blame and all the responsibility. My apologies diminished both me and my power.

There are other leaders who never apologize. They make it a policy. They are convinced that apologizing shows weakness and lack of vision. Relationships are permanently ruptured, their humanity is compromised, and the work environment deteriorates. Always apologizing and never apologizing are ineffective and damaging. Leaders who use apology wisely and well have learned how to discern when they have done something hurtful; know how to offer an apology simply, directly, and humbly; and are ready to self-correct and move on. Yes!

To sum up Part I of this article, Apologies that Heal, here is an excellent summary from Kador’s Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust (pp. 201-202).

In wholehearted apology, the kind that recipients find immediately satisfying, the offender:

  • Offers a detailed factual record of the events related to the offense, specifying the offense in plain language without a hint of defensiveness.
  • Accepts undiluted moral responsibility for the offense on the offender’s own behalf.
  • Categorically expresses regret for the conduct.
  • Takes practical responsibility for the offense.
  • Signals that the offender has learned the error of his or her ways and promises not to do it again.

In half-hearted apology, the offender:

  • Hints at the offense at the heart of the injury and argues the facts.
  • Attempts to share responsibility.
  • Shades the issue of personal regret.
  • Resists taking practical responsibility for the offense beyond words.
  • Disregards the issue of repetition.

In nonapology, which may take the form of an apology but has no apologetic meaning, the offender:

  • Disputes the facts and defends the offender’s actions.
  • Sidesteps accepting responsibility except in the most impersonal, noncausal way.
  • Avoids expressing personal remorse.
  • Rejects providing restitution.
  • Suggests that in the same circumstances the offender will pursue the same offensive conduct.

Right use of power facilitator Magi Cooper works with men who are in habitually abusive relationships. They are familiar with half-hearted or nonapologies such as described in the list above. With these clients, Magi uses a variation of the apology process described in this article that she finds to be remarkably effective. It has three parts: “This is what I regret: (describe behavior and impact).” Then, “This is what I am going to do about it so it doesn’t happen again: (describe specific actions).” And lastly, “Is there anything you need from me right now about this?” Her language is colloquial, and the steps are simple and easy to respond to. The process gets to the core of the matter.

Apology is a topic worthy of deep and thoughtful attention. Sincere and well-considered apologies can heal personal relationships, improve organizational dynamics, and deescalate conflict, interrupt generational harmful patterns, lead to forgiveness, and even stop wars. Learning to apologize well is worthy work of the heart and essential to using personal and role power wisely and well.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Gage

    April 28th, 2014 at 3:16 PM

    Yeah an apology is one of those things that for me I always attempt to do in the right way so that’s why I think that I find it so frustrating when someone else only makes some kind of half hearted attempt at one.

  • Gretchen

    April 29th, 2014 at 3:28 AM

    Sorry, but for me if someone can’t see that even though they have some sort of power but they can’t even “lower” themselves to apologize when they are in the wrong, this is not a real leader to me. A true leader is someone who leads by example and shows others what it is like to have power but to use it with wiseness, kindness and compassion. If you are the type of person who cannot even say that you are sorry when you are in the wrong or you are constantly looking for ways to lay the blame on others, then that is not a leader, that is someone who is abusing the power that they have been entrusted with.

  • JT

    April 29th, 2014 at 3:43 PM

    I think that there are some people who are so opposed to offering up apologies because they truly feel that this means that they are admitting weakness if they do. This is simply not true. I have always felt that it takes a stronger person to apologize and to admit that they have done wrong than it ever does to try to weasel out of something and take no responsibility for anything. Admitting when you have made a mistake and then taking the time to learn from that admission is a way to show not only humility and class but also it shows that you want to learn from your mistakes. That to me is what a leader is all about.

  • beth anne

    April 30th, 2014 at 7:25 AM

    We often think that something like money or compensation in some way will help us to move forward when what we are really looking for is for someone to admit that they have been wrong and to simply apologize for their actions… and mean it.

  • Sylvia

    May 1st, 2014 at 3:49 AM

    Sure is hard to say you are sorry or admit when you are wrong, but even harder to make ameds with someone if you are not at least willing to give the whole sincere apology thing a try sometime. That’s all that most people want, to see that you are even just a little remorseful for your words or actions and that you are not just selfishly thinking of yourself all the time, and that you have taken their needs into consideration too. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and give someone what they need, so at elast act like you mean it, no, really mean it, when apologizing and then moving on.

  • donnie r

    May 2nd, 2014 at 4:29 PM

    Come on, just say it when you owe it to someone! You at least can give them that much can’t you?

    If you have that hard of a time getting over yourself and your dumb ole pride then you don’t need to be left in charge of anyone in the first place. Saying you are sorry is one of the best ways to med fences and to heal wounds. There is nothing sissy or weak admitting when you are wrong, and to many people that actually shows that you are cool and worth doing something for. If you can’t even do that for someone then maybe you aren’t the person that someone thought that you were to begin with.

  • Capers W

    May 3rd, 2014 at 7:19 AM

    People can totally see through a lie.
    If it isn’t real and heartfelt then just keep it, I don’t want you to aplogize and for it to actually sound degrading to me.

  • Cedar Barstow

    June 2nd, 2014 at 3:08 PM

    Thank you all for reading this and understanding the connection between the sensitivity and skill needed to make an authentic and healing apology and excellent leadership. I think if I had one question to ask someone I was thinking of hiring in a leadership position, I would ask him or her about what kind of apologizer they are!

    Thank you for your leadership every time you make an authentic apology and learn from the situation.


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