5 Keys To A Great Apology (And Why Leaders Need To Apologize First)

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You probably have a love/hate relationship with apologies.

You appreciate it deeply when others apologize to you.

But you find it difficult to apologize to others.

And let me guess, when you do apologize, you’re tempted to explain, justify or defend your actions.

Which is not really an apology at all.

Please hear this. Two of the most powerful words a leader can utter are simply, “I’m sorry.”

One of the reasons those two words are so powerful is because we hear them so rarely from leaders.

Think back over your life. When has a leader come to you, looked you straight in the eye, and offered an unconditional apology?

Rarely is my guess. Maybe never.

So let’s change that.

Here’s how.

5 Keys To A Great Apology (And Why Leaders Need To Apologize First) Click To Tweet

5 Ways to Apologize Well in Leadership

At its heart, an apology is ownership. It says “I was responsible.” Whether you intended to hurt someone or mess up a situation is irrelevant.

Mature, responsible leaders know they are the problem, and they work hard to see and claim their share of anything that went wrong. They’re quick to accept blame, and even faster to assign credit to others when things go well.

These leaders know it’s not about them. It’s about the mission and the team.

So how do you apologize well in leadership?

Mature, responsible leaders know they are the problem, and they work hard to see and claim their share of anything that went wrong. Click To Tweet

Here are five guidelines that have helped me and that I’ve appreciated when I’ve seen them at work in other leaders:

1. Go first

Often when a situation gets messed up, people are wondering what to do with it. Sweep it under the rug? Let it go? Wait for someone else to take the lead?

If you’re a leader–even if you’re not the senior leader–take the initiative. Go first.

If you do, you’ll not only break the ice, you’ll give others permission to take their share of responsibility and you’ll make the situation better.

So, go first.

Get Answers To Your Toughest Pastoral Succession Questions

5 years from now, what would it feel like to look back and know…

  • That you asked the right questions before and it prepared you for what came after?
  • That you made tough but necessary decisions to prepare for a brighter future?
  • That you were confident each step of the way?

You can hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

2. Say it in person, but if you can’t, don’t delay

Ideally, you will take the person or people involved aside, look them in the eye and own your part of the problem (which sometimes is 100% of the problem).

But if you’re not going to see them soon, don’t delay.

A couple of years ago, I sent two emails to two different people in one week to apologize for the tone in which I communicated something because I knew I wasn’t going to see the person within 24 hours.

Whatever you do, own what you need to own quickly.

3. Be specific about what went wrong and what you did

When things go wrong, the temptation is to be vague.

“Well, I’m not really sure what happened, but I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

“I don’t really know why it didn’t get done, but I’ll make sure it won’t happen again.”

I hear this all the time and it drives me crazy.

Really? How can you be sure it never happens again if you don’t even know what happened?

Being vague on the details is a sign that you don’t really care enough to figure out what happened.

Great leaders do solid post-mortems on tough situations so they can figure out what happened, what they could have done to avoid it, and then figure out how to not let it happen again.

When you’re owning a situation and apologizing for your role in it, being as specific as you can makes your apology mean more and makes you much more effective as a leader moving forward.

You can't promise something won't happen again if you haven't bothered to figure out what happened. Click To Tweet

4. Don’t defend

Our word “apology” comes from the Greek word απολογια (apologia), which means “defense.”

That’s not a bad thing when you’re engaging in apologetics (defending or advancing a belief system), but it’s a terrible thing to do when you are actually apologizing.

Saying things like “If she had delivered the first version to me on time I would have had it done on time” doesn’t help.

A defense is often an abdication of responsibility.

Don’t defend yourself. Don’t blame others.

Just own it and apologize.

5. Don’t justify

This is closely related to not defending yourself, but it’s so natural and common to justify your failure that it deserves mentioning.

Sure, traffic might have been slow. But you should have left 10 minutes earlier.

Yes, the shipment was delayed, but your job was to get it there on time, wasn’t it?

Absolutely, you were tired. But just because you were tired doesn’t mean you can dump all over people.

Those may be explanations, but they are not justifications. They don’t make what you did or failed to do right.

Never use an explanation as a justification. Even if you talk about reasons, still own your failure 100% (“I was really tired, but I was also really wrong. I apologize”).

Take responsibility.

An explanation is not a justification. Own your piece. Click To Tweet

I find that when I apologize using these guidelines, things go much better for the team and for me. Why? Because I grow, and I learn. And I become a better leader when I take full responsibility.

Secure Your Church’s Future with a Proven Pastoral Succession Plan.

If you’ve ever wondered:

  • How do I lead this church with a vision I didn’t create and a staff I didn’t hire?
  • Am I even equipped to be a lead pastor? And to lead our church through a healthy transition? 
  • How can I honor the outgoing pastor throughout the transition?

Then it might be time to make a plan for your future.

So much rides on healthy pastoral succession. A bad one can ruin a great legacy, harm a church, and make the new lead pastor a sacrificial lamb.

Or, it can go exceedingly well. 

How do you not mess it up when there's so much at stake?

The Art of Pastoral Succession helps you hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.