The Power of Saying “I’m Sorry”

May 2013, by So-Young Kang

Why don’t CEOs or leaders say sorry more often? Aren’t we all human? Don’t we all make mistakes from time to time? I definitely do and recently, there was a stressful situation where I jumped to conclusions without fully listening and unfairly scolded my staff.  I did not carry myself in the best way and as I reflected on that, I took some time in our next team call to apologize to my team and to the individuals who were impacted. I was sorry for how I behaved and wanted them to forgive my actions and words even if I did not intend to hurt them. I had to own my mistakes whether intentional or unintentional. It’s rare that any of us intentionally hurt other people, isn’t it?

What surprised me most was the reaction of one of the guys on my team who stood silently and looked at me stunned. When I asked what was wrong, he said he had never heard of a CEO admit they were wrong and was shocked. Hearing a leader apologize was something he had never experienced before. I wondered why not… because aren’t leaders human? Don’t we make mistakes sometimes?

I thought of potential reasons why we may not say sorry when we are wrong and came up with a few stories we may be telling ourselves—and may need a rethink.

An example of a story could be, “If I am wrong, it will give other people an excuse to make mistakes.” This is an interesting thought. CEO’s often ask me how to change the mindsets of their leaders to be more innovative and to be willing to take risks. The flip side of this is that from time-to-time, people will have to make mistakes and feel they are in a safe environment to fail fast. So perhaps, being wrong from time-to-time would give people an excuse to do just that… make mistakes.

I’m sure there are many other reasons why leaders don’t apologize more often. I’m not saying you should apologize all the time but when you are really wrong, can you be big enough as a leader to admit your mistakes, take ownership and learn from it as you set an example for others in your organization? Sometimes, It does require a bit of taking a humble pill to be big enough to say, “I messed up and I’m going to do better next time.” So my question is, what kind of culture are you trying to create? Are you willing to have the courage, as a leader, to stand up when you’ve made a mistake, look people in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry’? so that you can create a culture that is safe for people to take risks, to make mistakes, innovate, and to learn and move forward. What do you prefer?