The Apologetic Entrepreneur

There’s something we all need to do from time-to-time, but many of us find it to be quite difficult. To become great leaders, entrepreneurs need to be able to perform this act in a genuine and authentic way. And yes, there’s a right way and a wrong way. Before I give away the punchline, let me share an example that will illustrate the concept.

Our company has a set of core values that includes Integrity. One of the individual actions prescribed in this core value is, “I speak directly with people to resolve issues as they arise.” This translates into the notion that rather than triangulate with other people about a problem we are having with someone, we go directly to that person to resolve the matter. Seems simple enough, right? Now, suppose a member of the team is in a meeting with senior leaders including the CEO and this team member makes a comment that makes other uncomfortable. Some might believe the comment to be slightly disrespectful to the CEO. After the meeting, the CEO and a couple of the senior leaders are debriefing, and the CEO mentions that the comment that was made was probably inappropriate. The team member’s supervisor then goes to the team member and advises her that she should refrain from making similar comments in the future. The team member becomes upset that the CEO didn’t address this directly with her. What should the CEO do?

This situation actually occurred in our company and the CEO was me. It was brought to my attention by the supervisor that I may not have been keeping with our core value of Integrity because I triangulated with that supervisor rather than bringing the issue directly to the attention of the team member. What did I do? I picked up the phone and called the team member (who is based in another city). I told her that I had in fact mishandled the matter and should have come to her to discuss it. And I apologized for screwing up. In no way was this individual trying to deflect away any focus on her comment – she admitted that the remark was inappropriate, and she apologized to me. But she was absolutely right in her observation that a fundamental core value had not been observed.

Earlier in my career I might have been defensive about the feedback I received. I might have been indignant that somehow, I was wrong when it was another person who made the inappropriate comment to me in the first place. But I’ve learned a lot over the years and particularly how important it is to expunge false pride and an unhealthy ego to become a humble leader. Learning the Art of the Apology has been of great value to me.

Telling someone we’re sorry and admitting a mistake is important. But the way it’s done and what we say is equally critical. We’ve all heard this kind of an apology. “I want to apologize if what I did offended you.” This isn’t an admission that the perpetrator did anything wrong. He is simply apologizing if you are offended. The correct apology would have been, “I am sorry and want to apologize to you because what I did was wrong.” Another mistake is that of trying to rationalize the offense and then apologizing for it. In a way we’re still trying to defend what we did – although somewhat weakly. And it can come across in a condescending sort of way with the message that the aggrieved party is overly sensitive.

Smart entrepreneurs admit their mistakes and move on. Not making the same mistakes over and over is also a factor here. When a team member sees the leader of the organization easily and genuinely apologizing for his or her toe stubs, it goes a long way toward making it easier for others to follow suit.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Three Little Words

Question: I’m in the middle of a dispute with a colleague. I know she’s wrong and I’m right. But now I’m beginning to wonder. I’m concerned that this dispute is damaging my relationship with her. How do I work my way out of this mess?

Answer: There are three underused words in the English language that would probably solve all of this . . . I am sorry. Why don’t we say we’re sorry more often? For some reason, we believe that apologizing somehow causes us to lose something in a relationship. In fact, just the opposite occurs. I’ve been one of those people who always had to be right about everything. And after a lot of self-analysis I realized that this may have been driven to an extent by some sort of insecurity or lack of confidence.

Here’s an obvious statement; apologies must be real. How many times have we heard a politician or other public figure make this kind of an apology, “I’m sorry if my comments offended some in the community.” Saying one is sorry if someone else is offended can be subject to interpretation. Is the speaker sorry that someone took what he said the wrong way? Or is he sorry for what he actually said? If the apology was sincere, the speaker would say, “I’m sorry for what I said because I was wrong.” There’s no doubt that this person is truly remorseful about what he said.

I’ve gotten better at making heartfelt apologies. I’m not completely there yet, but my progress is incremental. I’ve found that I am catching myself before I try to defend a word or deed that may or may not be correct. The old me would argue to the end of the day that I was right. Not so much now. Several months ago I had what I thought was a playful moment with my wife. I had been teasing her throughout the evening and was oblivious to how frazzled she was at the end of the day. I made the mistake of turning the light off on her before she got into bed causing her to stumble around in the dark. She blew her top at me – something that very rarely ever happens. The old me would have snapped back at her that she was being overly sensitive and that I wouldn’t tease her if I didn’t love her so much. Instead, I made a choice at that moment. I simply said, “Honey, I’m being totally childish and insensitive. I’m completely wrong and I’m sorry.” The situation was defused and there were no hard feelings. I’ve also stopped turning the light off on her before she gets into bed.

Being able to say “I’m sorry” is not an act of weakness but an act of honesty. Sincere apologies build relationships and are an indication that we value another person. Rarely will we find three little words that have as much power as “I am sorry.”

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.