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



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.

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.

What helps you apologize?

What bothers you about the way others apologize?

Leave a comment!

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


  1. Adam on December 25, 2021 at 5:04 pm

    Matthew 5:23-24 always comes to mind. In the passage it’s the responsibility of the one who knows his brother has something against him to go and begin the effort to restore the relationship. It doesn’t say in the passage “if you’ve wronged someone” but “if you know your bother has ‘something against you’ which is pretty vague and covers any part in a disagreement. When I’ve been in disagreement with someone in the past this passage always seems to come to mind and it humbles me enough to go and apologize for my part. Even when I may have been the one wronged. And especially as an associate pastor I’ve always felt it’s up to me to disciple others in how to reconcile with someone. This passage has helped a lot to begin that process and take ownership of my responsibility.

    • kay on December 29, 2021 at 12:35 pm

      You are spot on Adam! If we took this teaching to heart, there would be a lot more peace in the world, especially in our small corner of it.

  2. Linda on December 24, 2021 at 10:21 am

    “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry if what I said hurt you” or any other “I’m sorry If…” These are not apologies. These words do nothing to diffuse or calm a situation. It only makes it worse. Thank you for this post.

    • Philip Wong on December 27, 2021 at 10:46 am

      Linda, you maybe right in a way that these are not apologies and may not diffuse or calm a situation or even make it worse. But if these words are truthful and spoken in love and with wisdom, they might need to be spoken. We should not feel that things must feel better and nice. Things might need to be worse before they get better. Reconciliation must start somewhere, whether it feels better or worse initially.

    • Gen on January 12, 2022 at 7:23 pm

      Right, often the ‘if’ puts it back on them instead of taking responsibility. It could be true in a sense, like they may be hurt, but if I’m unnecessarily hard in what I’m saying and that’s the reason for the hurt, then I need to say, “I’m sorry for speaking in a hurtful [or other more specific adjective] way,” rather than justifying what I said and the way I said it. Often “I’m sorry you feel that way” is the same way. It could be true, but it’s most often used when we don’t want to actually apologize for what caused the way they feel. Or “I’m sorry you saw it that way” when what the person did was an objective wrong. I think there might possibly be some exceptions where that’s not the case, but like 99%+ I think you’re right on, Linda.

  3. jaina on August 26, 2019 at 9:57 pm

    If a boss can’t even apologize, how can employees trust him?

  4. Leah Eubanks on August 24, 2019 at 5:45 am

    This is so difficult because the real issue underlying our apology is humility. Sometimes we enter a situation only looking at it through our own lens. This is dangerous because it puts us in a place where we can’t even see the hearts of the people we serve. Since coming into leadership, I find myself having to humble myself more and more. Apologizing is a tool that helps to chip away my own pride and humble me into the servant-leader God intended me to be. If you’re struggling with an apology, or struggling to see what you need to take responsibility for, pause. Ask God to humble you. Forgive others before they’ve asked for forgiveness and lead by elevating those around you. We’re better leaders when we remember “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

    • Linda Wells on December 19, 2021 at 10:50 am

      I’m struggling to know what to do about my situation. A staff member, who was founder of a small nonprofit stepped down from leading but still employed. I took the leadership role.

      After my first year, she resigned her position due to family issues. Before leaving we had one event to do that had been planned all year. She changed plans last minute and wanted my approval. I said no but she did it anyway. I was mad about it. We had words.

      There was tension her last day and she left without saying goodbye. Unfortunately, the person replacing her saw all this (not my anger or our words). I am not sure how to handle it. I feel I need to do something for her 10 years of service but we are at odds. I am also concerned my new staff will think it’s ok to just do whatever she wants to do.

      Do I apologize and try to fix this? Do I send a “thank you for serving” gift?
      Thanks for any advice!

      • Wayne on December 24, 2021 at 12:32 pm

        Seems to me that this is now more of an honor issue than an apology. She has served ten years. Surely there is more to remember than her last insubordinate act. Honoring what she did right may open the window for her to acknowledge that she may have been wrong. And it may pave the way to restoration as well. And it may assuage a bitter memory that results in critical words. Also – your other employees are watching. 😎

  5. Naomi Hill on August 19, 2019 at 10:04 am

    I wonder what you do when you both think the other person (not you) is in the wrong? Or you genuinely are in the right and they can’t see that they’re wrong (e.g. someone complains about a new family that in reality adds up to thinly veiled racism) and they are ‘waiting for an apology’ because you called them out on it… pondering this in the context of Matthew 18 and ‘as far as it depends on you live in peace with everyone’…

  6. Phillip on August 15, 2019 at 11:30 am

    I would add, “Deliberately ask to receive grace and forgiveness as a need of yours,” because 1) it further makes you vulnerable, humble and 2) it empowers the other person to give you something YOU need, which can only happen in a Jesus world when the wronged person is asked to give more to the offender.

    AND I would add “don’t expect…”, or perhaps “give permission for the other person NOT to believe you or your apology for now.” because it maintains a boundary between you and keeps their thoughts and feelings separate from yours. If they are really hurt or need to spend some time angry or grieving, you are giving them the option to not pretend like everything is alright. If they just give in, it could result in the same hurt feelings or resentment further down the road.

  7. Dan on August 15, 2019 at 6:03 am

    I have found that an apology is most transformational when we use the words, “I was wrong when…” Without those simple by so hard to utter words, very little ownership of the blunder is taken.
    Do you agree?

    • Phillip on August 15, 2019 at 11:32 am

      that is a great starting line… great ownership.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 16, 2019 at 12:18 pm

      That is a great way to phrase an apology!

  8. Mark on August 15, 2019 at 2:42 am

    Thanks for a great post, this will help with a situation that I am working through with another team. We are evaluating how to move forward after a conflict and we think an apology is part of the next steps.
    Sometimes as a leader we have to make decisions that are not popular. Don’t feel compelled to apologize because a decision was not popular. However in these situation a leader can acknowledge that people feel hurt by a situation or decision made. There may be valid reasons for the situation or decision but people feel hurt by how it was handled or communicated. Therefore the leader can apologize for the hurt that was caused and make a commitment to improve decision making or communication in the future.

  9. Margo on August 14, 2019 at 10:09 am

    Well, I can’t emphasize #3 enough. I’ve been in a Christian atmosphere that seems to believe that “giving an apology is easier than asking permission.” I believe this is an integrity issue. Please don’t just say, “I’m sorry” or “I’m sorry, I messed up.” Sometimes that just means, “I’m sorry I got caught.” Although you encourage us, Carey, to apologize quickly, I agree strongly that we need to take the time to figure out what we are apologizing for… And a second thing, apparently there is a difference to some people between saying, “I apologize” and “I’m sorry.” Not knowing this, I said “I apologize” in an email to a family member, only to have them tell another family member that “that wasn’t an apology – – they never said they were sorry.” I know that family dynamics can be different from “real life” (ha), but I thought it worth noting that for some, “I apologize” is not really apologizing. Blessings to you, Carey, as you continue to encourage us as “iron sharpening iron.” M 🐠

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