This is the “U” installment of the leadership series, “Alphabet for Leaders.”
During my college days I turned my car in front of another car. The front of the other guy’s car and the right rear side of my Datsun were demolished. (Datsun became Nissan) I received a ticket for the accident. Thankfully no-one was injured.
One time, years ago, I used my public position to attack another person. I betrayed a public trust. It wasn’t one of my proudest moments.
When our children were at home, I’d get frustrated about something and yell. One time my wife told me our home was more peaceful when I wasn’t in it. Ouch!
One summer, not long ago, my wife and I got in an argument. The windows in our home were opened when I yelled, “you’re nuts.” I’m convinced the neighbors still think I’m the one that’s nuts.
I wish life had an undo button.
I used to teach Microsoft Office classes for the college where I work. You should have seen the look of relief come over students when I showed them the undo button. Let’s face it, the undo button rocks.
Sadly, life isn’t like Microsoft Office. It doesn’t have an undo button. If it did, I’d undo the things I just listed and many more. How about you?
What to do when there’s no undo?
When neglect hurts others, apologize. When arrogance or anger come out, say, “I was wrong.” Look an offended party in the eye and say, “Will you forgive me?”
Don’t make excuses. Own the offense and say, “I’m sorry.”
Don’t say, “I’m sorry I hurt you.” Name the thing you did that hurt another and ask forgiveness.
Don’t excuse what you did with what they did. Say, “I was wrong.”
“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” Paul Boese
While writing this, I began thinking that an undo button might not be a good thing. Perhaps, at least in some cases, an apology does more than an undo. What do you think?
What other “U” words for leaders can you offer?
My experience has shown me that a firm and sincere apology shows strength of character and can bring parties closer than they were beforehand.
Making mistakes is human, but apologising for them gives you ownership of your mistakes.
Thanks for adding to the conversation. I agree, it takes character to apologize.
Great insights to a Leader’s ability to review own work and undo inappropriate ones. “Unlearn” may be an additional word, particularly in view of fast changing enviornment around us.
Unlearn is a great word! I love that one.
Good morning Dan,
Happy Monday to all LeadershipFreak readers and I am glad to jump into this discussion about “undo”s and apologies.
Whatever you call it, taking clear ownership of the impact of what you say and do expands your life and those of all around you. As leaders, when we hedge around this, we create long lasting harm to a team. When team members do it, they too create long lasting effects for the whole org.
One of the *biggest mistakes I witness is people offering “reasons why” instead of a clear sincere apology for the impact their actions had on others.
In customer service, when a customer complains about how they were treated, the response “That’s because …” is completely unacceptable unless the customer is asking for the reasons why. Else, it adds further insult. How would you feel if you objected to bad treatment and the customer service rep. explains, in essence, “here’s why we treated you badly”!
Perhaps even worse is the painful reply “I am sorry you feel that way.” Here’s a related post
The flip side, “We or I am sorry for the impact (our actions) had on you” is so powerful it comes close to actually being an “undo” button.
When you combine sincerity with ownership, trust re-emerges. It’s true with leaders, teams, and customers.
You add such great content in your comments.
I’m taking away … Don’t offer a reason why (unless asked) when giving an apology. Powerful.
Thanks for the link to your blog. I hope LF readers stop over and enjoy your insights.
Best to you,
Excellent point Kate…the second we start to ‘splain’ why, minimizes or negates the apology completely.
What the other person or customer sees/hears is an immediate wall of ill-conceived justification to the skies.
Those walls take a long time to dismantle.
A complient to this is to give someone the grace of forgiveness when they do not ask. an ‘Allow undo’ button if you will.
What you do not give, you can not expect to receive.
My wife has given me a lot of these mulligans – that undeserved second shot.
My Master Sergeant gave me one too, once 😉 I was well advised to take him up on his offer.
Yes you’ve added an important and necessary component to nurturing relationships. Thank you.
BTW, thanks for the link. The story is great and the principle you present helpful.
I think it is going through the situations that lead us to resolve through apology, clarification, or whatever means, that make us better, deeper people. If we had “undo” we would experience less personal growth.
Easier said than done.
I agree that many of the things I’d like to undo have actually made me.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
Great post! Another “U” word for leaders to embrace is Unity. Open, honest communication (which includes acknowledging your mistakes and apologizing) will contribute to the harmony, solidarity and unity of your team/organization.
I wonder…if we had an undo button – would we learn from our mistakes?
I’m delighted you stopped in to leave a great “U” word. I hadn’t even thought of unity but it sure is a biggie. And the connection with taking responsibility for our mistakes is unmistakable. Great call.
Take the pain out of a mistake and chance of learning sure go down don’t they? 🙂
Best to you,
I’m with Kate! (And also with Paula.)
Whenever I screw up and can earnestly say, “Wow. I didn’t do that well. I apologize.” the heaviness/guilt really do lift – and a deeper level of communication is often introduced.
AND – in those times when I can’t do that, I have to use the situation to further grow me. As one of my clients said recently: “Wow. This stuff isn’t for wimps is it?”
Thanks for your vulnerability Dan! Great post!
Apologies are so powerful (and essential). They frame an event. If genuine, they come from the heart. If honest, the character of the leader is transparent. And with most discord, apologies can become a catalyst for positive change and growth.
Dan, with the anger/arrogance interaction, you would apologize and ask, ‘will you forgive me?” Is that the right question at the right time? Maybe you would ask that later at another time. Seems as though the apology needs to be in its own space to give it the focus it deserves. (riffing off of Kate’s response)
When we apologize or say we were wrong, is that the time to be asking forgiveness or does that come later? Maybe a variation would be, when apologizing say, “please let me know how can I make amends.”
As leaders, we need to remember that much of the time, a customer interaction failure is often due to poor training and/or orientation to the mission/vision/values. It is on leadership to provide that training. With that in mind, leadership may owe two apologies, to the customer and to the employee for not providing the tools.
Other useful “U” words–Up, Understand, Unique and Business as Unusual–shouldn’t business be unusual rather than usual?
The uberty of this column is ubiquitous! 😉
Dan – this may be my favorite post of the alphabet series. Thanks for your candor. I agree with everyone here – straightforward apologies without excuses, extending allowances to others, and recognizing that Undo would make life poorer than “I messed up. I sincerely apologize.”
One addition: sometimes apology is not enough, and an effort to “make good” would be helpful: “I have done you a wrong, so please allow me to do you a right.” This does not undo, but restores balance and goes a step further in rebuilding trust and relationship. In fairy tales and myths, often the hero/heroine must re-balance the world by completing an impossible task after doing wrong. We don’t need to do the impossible, but sometimes it is useful to think “I know I’m forgiven, but I want to also rectify.”
I recall HBS when you say- what do you think? Today I am late to respond your post. Actually I went to attend my friend’s death rituals. Today is the birthday of his 14 years son. Last month when his son asked for computer on his birthday, his father went to computer shop, deposited some money and told that on 19th, computer should be in my home. Today when son has birthday, father is no more. Five years back when his younger brother died at 32, elder brother had his birthday. I am witness of all these unfortunate events.
Today, I discussed with management students about unlearn- Unlearn to learn and learn to unlearn. The greatest obstacle to our learning is unlearning and fear. If we overcome them, we start transforming ourselves. Yes, I fully agree with you that asking apology is a right step. but it is difficult to follow. It shows your resilience, aptability and flexibility and infact broden your horizon of learning.
I recall the U for leadership are- upfront, unbiased, unchallenged, unfriend, unyielding, ups and downs, unite…… Leader has to be unfront, unbiased, unchallenged, and unyielding. He should unite his effort towards goal. He should not be unfriend with anyone when face with ups and downs in life.
I agree with all the posts and would add to be careful overusing your apologies. I have found individuals using their apologies as a weapon or excuse for continuing what they originally apologized for. Obviously, these apologies are not sincere, but the last thing you want to be labeled as is a habitual apologist.
Overuse of apologies is actually a form of weakness. For example, I fired an investment adviser last year who could not stop himself or, for that matter, his entire staff from apologizing in ever forum of communication made post March 2009 to their clients. It happened so often it became meaningless and brought into question their ability, in my opinion, to make good investment decisions.
Another “U” is “Unleash” as in unleashing the potential of your people.
Excellent post Dan, Thanks
What a great post. We’ve all done something that we’ve regretted. For the record on most Mac computers and some pc’s CTRL+Z works very well. Sadly there’s no such button in life! It takes a big person to apologise and it makes you a bigger person to do so.
Another “U” word is Unified. Unifying teams is a skill never to be undervalued. The ability to gather people from all walks of life and turn them into a solid performing team is outstanding.
I’ve been reading quite a lot about “U”ncertainty today (inspired by the comments from a Mike Myatt blog post at http://www.n2growth.com/blog/leadership-principles/)
Viewpoint 1: A leader’s job is to deal in certainties where possible in order to eliminate/mitigate risks associated with ambiguity.
Viewpoint 2: The key factor for great leadership is the ability to recognize, explore, deal with [in part via emotional resilience] and profit from ambiguous and chaotic situations and to lead others through them.
I read about a framework that helps leaders “determine the prevailing operative context so that they can make appropriate choices. Each domain requires different actions.”
I liked the idea of letting patterns emerge: “Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed.”
Dealing in certainties or uncertainties, ’tis is the question. Fascinating topic! 🙂
In addition to this post, I love your comment
“…many of the things I’d like to undo have actually made me”
I prefer to to have an undo but an unregret. Any errors, ommissions, poor choices etc are purposefully designed to provide me with an opportunity to learn. As long as I don’t squander the opportunity, I have no regret.
Love your blog and tweet stream. Thanks for what you do
Thanks for dropping in and leaving an encouraging comment.
The thing about no regrets for me — some of the lessons I’ve learned have hurt others. I’d love to undo some of the pain my foolishness has caused.
Best regards to you and I hope you keep coming back,
“U” for Unmerited. Forgiving someone that doesntdeserve forgiveness is perhaps the best news one can receive. I’d say it’s ‘good news’ to say the least.
What do you think, Dan?
Great posting! I looked for the “like” button, but couldn’t find it. 🙂
Good ideas. Thanks for the web, we do teach one another and learn from it.
Going through the write up, i was feeling how i responded to the situation and still remember both the type when i got up and say sorry to a team mate and does not say any thing to some one. Actually the reactions in both the cases are different, when i say sorry the compassion in me that plays a major role and the result is great.. you being forgiven and the situational tension was relieved. But in the second case, i was not caring about the situation and i don’t care how other person feels. Because i have a feeling that
Tie your string