How great leaders apologize

As leaders, we are faced with tough decisions that impact many people. And let's face it, not everyone is going to be happy with each one of those decisions. In fact, if we’re not stepping on a few toes, we’re probably playing it too safe. Good leaders know how to act decisively, but they also know how to recognize when their actions hurt others, and they actively work to repair damaged relationships. A well-crafted and heart-felt apology is key to mending these wounds.

For a meaningful and effective apology,  your goal  should be to acknowledge that you hurt someone else and to show contrition. It is not about defending your actions or arguing about why you did  them. If you’re not ready to own your decisions and actions, wait until you’re in a better place before attempting to repair the relationship.

Done correctly, an apology will maximize your success and build stronger bonds with the people you trust and rely on. Here are the five simple, but crucial steps to making an apology.

1. Say “I’m Sorry”

Say those exact words. “I’m sorry”. Too many apologies go on and on without actually saying these simple words. This leaves the receiver having to guess. Don’t make them. Tell them right off the bat. Whether you are apologizing in-person or in writing, open with a clear statement that you are sorry. Let them know you are apologizing and that you want to repair the relationship. No defensiveness or explanations needed.

2. Give a Detailed Account

Express what behaviors, choices, and actions (or inactions) were involved. Be specific and be exhaustive. Again, don’t explain why or list excuses, just be clear on what you did. Try saying, for example, “I didn’t invite you to the meeting,” “I made the decision without consulting you,” or “I decided not to give you the lead on the project.” Describe your actions factually and neutrally. If you’re not clear on which actions caused impact, you need to take the time and ask some questions and gather information before you continue.

3. Acknowledge Impact

Now that you’ve detailed your actions, give a detailed account of the impact on the other person. Show that you see and understand the effects your actions. Again, you don’t need to come up with justifications or excuses, just state you are aware that your behavior impacted the other person. Show that you’re not oblivious to its consequences.

Building on the example above, you could say, “I understand that excluding you from the meeting meant that you didn’t have the opportunity to express your concerns about the project, and that the final decision that was made without you affects your team.” You can also state how you think they felt about your decision. Unless you know for a fact how they felt because they have told you, do NOT assume you know what is/was happening in their head. Instead, you could say, for example, “I can imagine that that was frustrating for you and that you felt sidelined.” Be careful here; you want to empathize,  not assume. Don’t be condescending.

4. Express Regret

You need to show that you wish that it didn’t play out the way it did. Here’s the trick: you don’t need, or want, to say that you’ll make up for it, or change your decision. The fact is, sometimes things just happen. You can both hold firm on your decision and be sorry for the impact it has caused. As a leader you will make difficult and imperfect decisions. If you are constantly trying to make up for these situations, you’ll always be trying to make amends or doing damage control. Don’t get caught in this trap.

However, if at this point you realize that something did go wrong, or you feel like you need to change or fix something, be very clear about what it is you’re going to do and be sure you are able and likely to do it. Do not make false promises just to make everyone feel better.

5. Ask for Forgiveness

This is the final, and key, step. Ask them directly for their forgiveness. This is the moment of truth for the relationship.  Clearly state it as a question to which you expect an answer. Do not say, “I hope you can forgive me”, but rather, “Can you honestly and fully forgive me?” Wait for an answer. You might need 5-10 seconds of uncomfortable silence. If you feel that they are giving you a disingenuous answer, say so. Ask them to really consider what you’ve said and what you’re asking. For example, say, “I’m worried that you haven’t given this enough thought and I want to make sure you’re really ready to forgive me Do you want more time?” Explain that the future of your relationship is important and that you want to be sure that you’ve truly addressed the situation and you're both ready to move forward.

Once you’ve delivered your apology and have asked if they can forgive you, there are three possible outcomes to consider:

Outcome 1. They forgive you

Great! This is the ideal outcome. First, thank them for listening and for truly considering their answer. Tell them that you value their relationship greatly and that you can have open and honest conversations with them.

Outcome 2: They say they can’t forgive you, ever

This might happen, and it’s not an easy situation. Immediately, you need to accept their answer and thank them for their honesty. Acknowledge that this will affect your relationship and that you’d like to talk about how things need to change. If the mood feels tense, you may need to give it a little time. If not, ask them what they suggest your next steps be and what changes they want to see happen given what’s transpired. In this case, you need to renegotiate the working relationship so that each person feels safe and valued. In some cases, this might mean new working agreements or ground rules, in others, it may mean changing roles or switching departments. In extreme cases, it could mean ending the relationship. While this may seem harsh, the sooner these issues are addressed, the better.

Outcome 3: They can’t forgive you now, but they will work on it

Again, thank them for being honest and for carefully considering your apology. If the situation warrants it, ask what you can do to help with that process. If it's heated, back off and come back to the question another time. Your goal at this point is to assist them in forgiving you. It might take a while. And it might get to a point in which you are no longer willing to wait and need to move ahead under the assumption that it won't happen.

The majority of the time, leaders act with good intentions, use reasonable decision making processes, and steer through relationship turbulence successfully. In fact, the best leaders I've worked with have been though many apologies but yet have amazingly dedicated teams. Why? Because their people trust them to do the best they can to make hard calls, and when there is fallout, they know they will be treated with fairness and respect.

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Bruce Eckfeldt is an entrepreneur, a former Inc 500 CEO, and member of the New York City Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. He is an expert in organizational performance and coaches startups and high-growth companies on leadership and management. You can reach him at or visit his website at