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The Art of Apology

My mother used to say to me, “Two phrases that could make the world a better place aren’t used often enough: thank you and I’m sorry.” When Spencer Johnson and I wrote The One Minute Manager, we taught managers to make workplaces better by saying thank you. When Margret McBride and I wrote The 4th Secret of the One Minute Manager, we encouraged managers to improve their leadership by practicing the art of apology.

An appropriate apology begins with surrender. That starts with being truthful — admitting that you’ve done something wrong and need to make up for it. The key is a willingness to take full responsibility for your actions and any harm done. Even if you don’t feel you were entirely at fault, apologize for your part in the situation. Phrases like “there’s plenty of blame to go around here” do little to mend hurts or inspire confidence.

Your apology needs to be motivated by sincerity and remorse — it can’t be contrived or forced. Once you’re ready to speak from the heart, be specific about what you did and how bad you feel about it.

An effective apology ends with integrity. This involves recognizing that what you did or failed to do is wrong and inconsistent with the person you want to be. When you apologize, it is important to affirm that you are better than your poor behavior.

Once you’ve admitted your mistake and the harm it has done, it’s time to focus on others and how you can make amends. Your apology won’t matter if you do not make a commitment to stop doing what you did wrong and keep it by changing your behavior.

Even great leaders have been known to break promises, ignore commitments, withhold information or treat people unfairly. What makes them great is that they take responsibility.

During the Civil War, Col. Charles Scott, one of the commanders guarding the Capitol, lost his wife in a steamship collision. Scott appealed for leave to attend the funeral and comfort his children. His request was denied; a battle seemed imminent and every officer was essential. Scott, as was his right, pressed his request all the way up the chain of command until he reached President Lincoln. The president listened to Scott’s story and responded:

“Am I to have no rest? Is there no hour or spot when or where I may escape these constant requests? Why do you follow me here with such business as this? … You ought to remember that I have other duties to attend to — heaven knows, enough for one man … I have all the burdens I can carry. Go to the War Department. If they cannot help you, then bear your burden, as we all must, until this war is over.”

This isn’t the wise, compassionate Lincoln we learned about in school. But Lincoln was a human being, and human beings make mistakes.

Early the next morning Scott heard a rap at his door. He opened it and there stood the president. Lincoln took Scott’s hands, held them, and broke out:

“My dear colonel, I was a brute last night. I have no excuse to offer. I was weary to the last extent, but I had no right to treat a man with rudeness who has offered his life to his country, much more a man in great affliction. I have had a regretful night and now come to beg your forgiveness.”

Lincoln went on to say that he had arranged for Scott to go to his wife’s funeral. The commander-in-chief took Scott to the wharf in his own carriage and wished him Godspeed.

Did Lincoln’s apology diminish his authority in Scott’s eyes or cause the colonel to criticize him? Of course not. The apology only served to deepen Scott’s loyalty.

Practice the art of apology. By adding this skill to your goal setting, praising and day-to-day coaching, you will transform your leadership into a real give-and-take process. When you’re vulnerable enough to apologize, you’ll strengthen your relationships and inspire others to do the same.

Ken Blanchard is a best-selling author, speaker and chief spiritual officer of The Ken Blanchard Cos. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.