Leadership and the Anatomy of a Good Apology

John Wayne, (or one of his many characters), once said, “ Never apologize, Mister. It’s a sign of weakness

He may have been right in many things but in this, he was mistaken.  Apologies, the good kind, take a lot of courage and humility to pull off.   There is nothing weak about that.

But what constitutes a good apology? And, what can we expect when we make it?  Here’s what comes to mind for me.

A good apology starts with the right motivation ~ The most sincere reason for making an apology is simply to express deep regret and a desire to make a wrong, right again.  Anything else, like apologizing because doing so will make us feel better, is not much of an apology at all.

A good apology involves exposure and vulnerability …our own.  Apologizing well means that we have to lay aside all of our ‘built-in’ protective devices.  In other words, an apology accompanied by an excuse or a deflection of blame isn’t going to cut it.  To make it real, we have to reveal ourselves as the imperfect beings we are.  That’s the scary part.

A good apology includes willingness to make amends ~ We can’t unsay hurtful words or undo hurtful actions.  But if we show intent to listen and make an effort to repair the damage we’ve caused, the possibility of restoring trust is that much greater.

Of course offering an apology, even a good one, is only the beginning.

So what can we realistically expect from those to whom we apologize?  Well, here it is in one word.


We can expect nothing because those who hear our apology have the right to decide how they are going to respond to it. Chances are, if it is offered sincerely and with genuine intention to make amends, the work of reparation can begin.  But there are no guarantees.  Sometimes we simply have to learn to live with the knowledge that we have inflicted a hurt for which we are not forgiven…and accept the consequences that come out of that.

Having said that, I can think of two things we can expect from the process of rebuilding a broken trust

It will take a long time ~ There are no quick fixes here.  Rebuilding trust requires consistent proof through word and deed that re-establishing damaged relationships is a priority. It takes patience and consistent effort.  And, it is not for the offender to say when it’s over.

Those who offend are never in the position to choose the depth or breadth of their consequences. ~ For instance, during Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, he said, “I deserve to be punished.  I’m not sure I deserve the death penalty”

To me,  whatever his punishment, it is not up to Mr. Armstrong to decide its nature or severity. His apology is only a good one if he is willing to let go of control and accept whatever consequences come from his offence.  I think that’s true for the rest of us too.


The Bottom Line

If you are a human being, at some point you will have said or done something for which you need to apologize.   If you are a leader of other human beings, this will be especially true because, like or not, you are a role model and as such, the magnifying glass is on you.  So, when you mess up, the apology needs to be a good one.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?


Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development

18 responses to “Leadership and the Anatomy of a Good Apology

  1. I think that’s one of the many reasons the world is frustrated with Lance. Is he REALLY apologizing directly to the people he hurt in a meaningful way?

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Karin ~ A very good question. Lance Armstrong’s ‘apology’ felt to me more like an admission accompanied by an underlying impatience to move on. While the latter may be understandable, it is not reasonable for him to expect that people he hurt will accept it as presented. I’m thinking that more work in the sincerity department is in order…and tons more work in the reparation department.

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  4. An excellent exploration and analysis of a tough subject, Gwyn. I especially like your point that “It takes patience and consistent effort. And, it is not for the offender to say when it’s over.” So often I hear a variation of “I said I’m sorry. Now get over it.” I think a good apology should also include a sincere promise to not repeat the behavior. It becomes meaningless after awhile to hear even a sincere apology from someone who keep repeating the same behavior.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jesse ~ I agree! That’s an important addition. And your comment gives rise to the thought that repeat behaviour actually reveals the level of sincerity of the original apology, or perhaps degrades it. As such, ensuing apologies become more and more questionable and the work of reparation, in many cases, becomes impossible.
      Thanks for adding value to the post by sharing your thoughts here.

      • Terry Thomas

        HI Gwyn
        Yours and Jesse’s comments made me think that an apology means more than to stop doing the negative behavior. A true apology means to add the positive actions. Instead of apologizing to mom about not sending a letter, I need to put pen to paper, put a stamp on the envelope, and put the letter in the mail, even though postage rates increased!

        Your post about apologies also made me remember a topic that has been on my mind lately: rumors. It is very difficult to apologize for hurtful words. For some reason, I feel that I can forgive actions more than words. Other people may be the opposite and take words with a grain of salt and pay more attention to actions. However, the new on-line bullying has been hurtful to many people. Once words are typed and sent, is it even possible to apologize?
        I thought I’d include a link to the lyrics to Adele’s song, “Rumour Has It”. The last verse that says ‘just cause I said it, doesn’t mean I meant it” has caught my attention. People and leaders seem to have adopted this attitude. Has technology made relationships more impersonal?


        That’s what I think. What do you think?

        Thanks for the motivation to write the letters and mend the relationships!

      • Gwyn Teatro

        Hi Terry ~ I think it’s always possible to apologize. It’s not always possible to be forgiven. As for technology making relationships more impersonal, I think that’s a choice we make. To your point though, I do think technology has enabled mean spiritedness in those who choose to go that route. It’s now easy to say something unkind or downright cruel to someone and never be called to task for it. So, sadly, there are people who enjoy taking advantage of that opportunity while hiding behind the anonymity it affords.
        Also, to expect people to accept the “just ’cause I said it, doesn’t mean I meant it” philosophy is arrogant in the extreme.
        Thank you for adding your always interesting thoughts to the conversation!

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  10. Terry Thomas

    Hey Gwyn,
    Did you change the quote of the week? I really like this one. I also appreciate your personal responses. Technology has enhanced our ability to communicate, increased knowledge and encouraged curiosity. Along with these positive attributes comes the negative behaviors and emotions. I think progress has been associated with negative feedback all through history. Usually the people who advance are the forward-thinkers. I’m glad technology opened the door for our conversations. Also, I noticed that your picture resembles one of me when I wore a dress with a white collar!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Terry ~ Any time someone invents something new, no matter its original purpose, there will be some people who will use it for good and others who will finds ways to use it for ill. The Internet is no different.
      Thank you for continuing to visit here and for your kind words.
      p.s. The quote of the week provides a hint about what the next post will be about. 🙂

  11. Thanks for sharing an excellent article on the art of the forgotten principle of Apology.

  12. Pingback: Apologies. For Realz. | Family Nature

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