Very few if any of us find it easy to say sorry. And even when, at times, the words come out of our mouths they don’t always come from our guts; from that place deep within us.
If you are a leader, it can often feel even harder. You are tempted to buy into the myth that leaders can’t be wrong. And even if you know that you are wrong that leaders can’t afford to show that they are weak. Without being gendered about this, I suspect that it is an attitude particularly prevalent amongst men.
So perhaps this month’s column is particularly for men; and specifically for those men, including myself, who find is hard to admit when they get things wrong. Over the years, I have come to the realisation that the ability to apologise – and really mean it – is an essential leadership quality.
Saying sorry is never easy but there are times when it is obvious that it is what we need to do. I think of the time when I really lost it with a couple in the local congregation. They were a wonderfully loyal couple, but they really did my head in some weeks!
I could give all sorts of excuses as to why – and for a few hours I did – but the bottom line is that I was bang out of order. So that afternoon I had to simply turn up at their door, eat humble pie and say sorry. And mean it. They were gracious enough to accept my apology; and to forgive me.
Although it wasn’t my purpose for doing so – beware the false apology or saying sorry in ways that are designed to manipulate – I think that Sunday afternoon visit strengthened rather than weakened my leadership credentials. It also taught me a valuable lesson about perspective.
There are other times, however, when the issue is not so clear cut. With others I had been deeply involved in a strategy that was not playing out well. I continue to believe that much of the direction of travel we were taking was right, but we had failed to take people with us; something that is absolutely vital in collaborative leadership. And so, it fell to me, in front of a packed (and somewhat disgruntled) room to stand up and say that I believed that we had got it wrong, I was sorry, and we wanted to start again; and on a different footing.
I am not pretending for a moment that what followed over the coming months and years was plain sailing. Far from it. There remained lots of choppy waters to navigate. However, our apology did reset the relationship and it did enable us to make some real progress.
That second episode was interesting because some of my closest friends and colleagues counselled me against it. They said that it would demonstrate weakness and undermine our authority.
However, I knew that we had got things wrong and that much of our authority was already undermined. Continuing to dig that hole deeper served no purpose. We had to try to see the bigger picture as opposed to remaining trapped in what was, ultimately, a futile struggle.
I had also learnt, the hard way, that there must be a way of leading which is embodied in weakness where we do not lead from a place of authority but rather from authenticity.
This article first appeared in the April 2023 Issue of Life and Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland. You can subscribe at https://www.lifeandwork.org/subscribe/subscribe.