How Are You at Saying “I am Sorry”?

I’m sorry.  There, I said it.  I made a mistake and I am sorry.  All should be fine now. As leaders, we make mistakes.  Everyone does.  But when we are in the spotlight, our response to making a mistake is critical: to our current position and our future as a leader. How Are You at Saying “I am Sorry”?


Just saying “I am sorry” is not enough.   All will probably not be fine.



Julian Barling of Queen’s University recently contributed a blog post to the Globe and Mail’s Leadership Lab wherein he says ‘a true apology is both art and science’.  So true.


Our response needs to be quick, definitive, humble and restorative.  Stumble on any part if this equation and it can all easily blow-up in your face. ‘Wing it’ and you will most likely get yourself into hot water.


The bad news is that sometimes a quick, definitive, humble and restorative apology is not enough.  But that’s life.  You tried.


The good news is that, in my experience, there is no better opportunity to show your true colours than when you’ve made a mistake.



You need to move very fast.   Regardless of what else is going on in your life, you need to drop everything and deal with this situation. I was in a position many years ago where I needed to confront a very unhappy class of students.  A 2 day module of a long program did not go well and the class was owed an apology …and more.  My response was anything but quick.  I hummed and hawed, sought advice and weighed my options while this group of very unhappy people stewed, talked among themselves, got angrier and worse than all, figured that my lack of response was a sign of indifference.  Step one was not executed well.



There should be no discussion, debate nor excuses.  Your apology needs to be clean and clear.  Any remedy needs to be clear, concise and fair.  You do not want to create an opportunity for further dialogue.   This is a closing move not an opening to an on-going discussion.



Suck it up. You made a mistake. You blew it. Guess what? You are human.  So don’t try to rise above the situation.   Do not try to deflect any of the responsibility on anyone, or anything, else. And if you can, while you are at it, take the heat for as many others as you can.  If the buck stops with you – take it in the face.

Back to that angry class.  Once I came around and did apologize, albeit way too late, I actually wore a hockey helmet and mask into the classroom, immediately apologized and told them to take their well-deserved shots.  Humble with a risky touch of humour.



Make it up to them.  Try to get the audience back to whole.  If this is not possible, offer something else. The angry class was offered a credit to any 2 day course over the next year.  The offer was clear and concise and thus would not open a debate on its suitability to the whole class.


Many years ago, I had an angry mob on my hands at a conference I was running as a result of a not-so-great speaker.  By this time I had learned my lesson.  The morning’s keynote speaker was close by, selling his books. I walked over and bought them all.  I then called the group together, took full responsibility without any mention of the speaker and gave them all a copy of the book.  In fact, it got better as the keynote speaker sat by me and signed every one of those books.


So, as a leader, you will make mistakes.  As a great leader, you must deal with it quickly, definitively and humbly and you have to do your best to make the audience feel somewhat restored.


When was the last time you had to say “I am sorry”?  How did it go?


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