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After many years of observing great and not-so-great leaders, I have come to the conclusion that the ability to say sorry in a meaningful way is one of the key strengths of enduring leaders. I have also observed that only those leaders that can retain a certain detachment between themselves and the power of their organisation are more likely to retain this modicum of common sense that will allow them to reassess situations and, ultimately, emerge stronger when they have to apologise.

This thought, of course, has been triggered by Tony Blair’s performance at the Iraq inquiry on January 29th. Now look into his eyes and make your own judgement. The argument is not bad but, independently of your views on the Iraq war, the style is awful. Now why is that?  – Fear of legal consequences? Politician’s habit of never apologising about the cause? Out of step with reality? Truth too hard to contemplate? Take your pick, but Tony clearly missed an opportunity to reassert any form of moral authority. Now contrast this with these two examples of public apology:

  • Warren Buffet was totally candid and apologetic about his mistakes in his most recentletter to shareholders: “During 2008 I did some dumb things in investments. I made at least one major mistake of commission and several lesser ones that also hurt. I will tell you more about these later. Furthermore, I made some errors of omission, sucking my thumb when new facts came in that should have caused me to re-examine my thinking and promptly take action.” Reading the letter inspires you with an unshakable trust in both the man and his ability to run whatever he is entrusted with.
  • Jet Blue CEO David Neeleman was equally frank after a catastrophic week of delays and cancellations in 2007. Once again he shows empathy for emotions, humanity and a willingness to take it on the chin while proactively fixing the problem: “Words cannot express how truly sorry we are for the anxiety, frustration and inconvenience that you, your family, friends and colleagues experienced. This is especially saddening because JetBlue was founded on the promise of bringing humanity back to air travel, and making the experience of flying happier and easier for everyone who chooses to fly with us. We know we failed to deliver on this promise last week.”

One must distinguish of course between these genuine apologies and the mechanistic ‘wrong kind of leaves on the line’ stories we read about daily. Specialist web site perfectapology.comgoes as far as suggesting a check list. The two things missing in this otherwise fine list are: acknowledgement of Emotions (a.k.a reading the public mood) and ensuring that the apology passes the common sense test. This will avoid the ‘what were they thinking’ reactions evident in recent events such as Eurostar blaming Eurotunnel for their own inability to handle the Christmas snow debacle. So if you have to apologise, take it as an opportunity to reaffirm values, engage staff and customers, demonstrate emotional intelligence and demonstrate courage. The true signs of a visible leader.


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