Authentic Leadership

The Art of Saying “I’m Sorry” – The Beginning

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The first step to authentic leadership

There are many articles about the art of saying “no,” and you will probably see a post about it here soon too. But I wanted to focus on another phrase we often have trouble uttering – “I am sorry.” And since it turned out that I have had a heap of failures and reasons to apologize, I will dedicate three posts to the topic.

I am sorry

When we start our careers as leaders, we often have this image of the perfect manager in our heads – one who is never wrong, who always knows what to do and who achieves everything they set out to do.  And for some of us, this conviction persists long after taking our first shaky steps in leadership. We try to maintain this image of infallibility at all stakes and find it hard to admit to others and even to ourselves when we make a mistake or fail.  

It probably depends on how many mistakes you make, but I do tend to mess up a lot, so the effort to present myself as a leader who never falters soon proved to be too much for me. I had to return to myself and be more authentic in my relationships, so I decided to talk more openly about my successes and failures.

At that time, I still felt quite insecure in my management skills and overall expertise, so I took my first steps with quite a lot of trepidation. However, this road has consistently been leading me to some fabulously unexpected places, and I have not for a second regretted that I took it.

I have found that being able to apologize sincerely has had a tremendously positive effect on various aspects of my work life, and I would like to share with you some of them.

Strengthening Individual Relationships

One of the astounding effects I first noticed when I started to be open about my slip-ups was on the individual relationships with my team members. I think we can all agree that trust is essential for the manager-employee relationship. Especially now, when we all work remotely, it is incredibly important to be able to trust your team. But trust is a two-way street, and the entrance to this street is building our employees’ trust in us. And this can only happen through transparency.

The other discovery I made, which was quite surprising for me initially, was that our employees need us not to be perfect. Seeing us making mistakes and being open about it allows them to build more realistic expectations about themselves and be open and honest about their failings and struggles. We can only expect them to own up to their mistakes if they see us owning up to ours.

The Story

The ladies in my management team are amazingly independent and are all incredible at what they do, so they rarely come to me for help. This makes it ever more vital for me to be able to deliver in those situations.

One of them recently came to me to ask for support for one of her team members. It was a fight that I gave my all to win, but due to many complex factors outside my control, I couldn’t, and what was even worse, the timing was such that I had to give up trying. I felt awful. Not only because what we were trying to accomplish was the right thing to do, but also because I had betrayed the trust that my colleague had in me as her leader who will be able to resolve her problem.

I had to tell her that I had fallen short of her expectations and it scared me. We have a great relationship, and I know she respects me a lot and even has a bit of an idealistic view of me, but this was the most significant thing she had ever asked of me, and I had failed. I started with the result and that I had not managed to achieve our goal. I then explained the steps that I had taken and what had been the factors that had affected the outcome. And then I said I was sorry. I shared my emotions and opened the door for her to share hers.

She was visibly disappointed, but she understood. She saw that in a corporate environment, there are many factors not always immediately evident to her that contribute to decisions and that there are things that are outside of our control, and no matter how much we want something, we cannot always achieve it. She appreciated I made a genuine effort and that I was open with her about all aspects of the outcome and my shortcomings.

It does still pain both of us that we could not win our battle, but our relationship is even stronger now. She knows that I will always do my best to support her and that even if I fail, I will be fully transparent about it.

I would be fascinated to hear your “I’m sorry” stories, so please share some in the comments.

Talk to you next time!

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