The Power of An Apology


The 1970 movie “Love Story” spawned a new catch phase in American culture: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Not being Erich Segal, the novelist and screenwriter, I can only speculate what he meant was when you deeply love someone, they know you so well and know your intent so well that they overlook your offenses because they understand your true feelings.

That line and philosophy actually became the source for a lot of jokes and sarcasm…interesting for a phrase that is almost 50 years old.

In the world of leadership, I fear we have lost the power of the statement, “I’m sorry.” As leaders, we run too quickly to point a finger at the other guy. As we travel through this journey of becoming leaders who serve, I maintain that the ability to say, “I’m sorry” is a critical tool every servant leader should have in their skill set.

  1. Be ready with the apology. A servant leader looks in the mirror first. When things go wrong, and we know they will, are we prepared to ask ourselves, “what was my part in this failure?” Can’t understand why the project fell apart? Look to yourself first. Can’t get along with a co-worker or employee?  Look at your part in the situation. Did you equip your team with everything it needed to be successful? Is your ill feeling toward that co-worker a remnant of some bad experience you had long ago? And then most importantly, if it’s appropriate, apologize. 
  2. Be sincere with the apology. People know instantly if you’re faking it.  Apologies are built on humility. Don’t be afraid to embrace being humble.  You’ll be amazed how your relationships with your team will improve once you’re brave enough and transparent enough to apologize. Trust me, you will survive. 
  3. Teach through the apology. Situations where you believe an apology is called for can be wonderful teaching opportunities for you as a leader.  People will not think you’re weak if you admit you made a mistake in your leadership and apologize for it. Now the door is open for an honest conversation about what went wrong and why. You’ll learn about the team, its strengths and weaknesses and how to guide it more effectively.       
Im sorry.jpg

Unlike the famous line in “Love Story,” being a servant leader means always being willing to say “I’m sorry” when we have fallen short. Servant leadership says if we love our employees, it’s all the more reason to apologize when it’s warranted.

Please share your thoughts about the power of an apology as a leader.

  Carol Malinski

Director of Content and Curriculum