Leadership in the Western World Isn’t Driven by Apologies

Much is made in the Western world of the importance of an apology as a precursor to reconciliation.

When we start out as children—and our world is starkly black and white—apology comes, not from inside of us, but from outside of us. It is a statement we are compelled to say to others when we hurt them, under threat of punishment from someone in a position of power, i.e. a parent, a guardian, or an older sibling.

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These apologies are rarely meant, rarely come from a place of empathy about the situation or the other person harmed, and rarely lead to long-term resolution of conflicts, hurts, or injuries.

As we grow older, however, we become used to doing everything that we can to respond to conflicts through attack, avoidance, and/or accommodation. Interestingly enough, adults use all three of these methods to get around, get past, and smooth over the need to either give an apology or receive one.

Then, this tendency scales to the workplace; a hard-charging environment concerned only with the acquisition of revenue, the holding of power, the maintenance of position, and continual growth. And when there’s a mistake made, a wrong committed, or an injury to a customer, a client, or a partner, apology becomes a place for liability to lurk in the shadows.

There’s no room for apologies in this environment when people are hurt through conflicts there.

Just get over it, and move on.

Leadership Requires Thinking Differently–About Resolution

But, what if the courage to apologize, much like the courage to take a risk and resolve a conflict in a different way, were a leadership competency, rather than a trapdoor for an executive leader to lose their position?

What if we thought about the process of risk, forgiveness, failure reconciliation, and apology differently?

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As was pointed out last week, people get into disputes with other people, but because organizations and workplaces operate at scale, there is little room for the individual to get resolution—or apology—at scale. The only solution is to change the way we operate in organizations at scale, and to shift the conversation around conflict, disagreement, and even injury away from litigation and toward resolution.

The only people who can do that are the people at the top of the hierarchical pyramid. The ones that set the culture of (to paraphrase from John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) “No apologies. It makes us look weak.” The ones that promote, and expand, the image (the myth, if you will) of the hard-charging executive.

We see this beginning to happen with Zappos, and the growing interest in implementing a holocracy system in organizations. A system where there is a flattened hierarchy.

Leadership Begins with Redesign

This is the beginning of rethinking how we redesign organizational myths and cultures.

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But, for apologies to be effective, and for the act of apologizing to be an effective leadership competency, there must be three things evident before a mouth opens to give a statement:

For organizations to continue to develop, scale and grow successfully in the 21st century, leadership training, competencies and even research has to shift in favor of increasing leaders’ development in the three above areas, before an apology-based culture is even considered.

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