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Leadership Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

Leaders Never Say SorryEver bump into someone in a store or on the street? Let loose on your wife or kids and wish you hadn't? Forget to pay a bill until it's long overdue?

What do you do when that happens? You say, you're sorry, right? You do that because you probably learned repeatedly growing up that it's the right thing to do. It's the civilized thing to do. And if you want to be a good, healthy member of society, that's what you do.

Well, guess what? Somewhere along the line, a relatively high percentage of corporate, business, and political leaders have somehow gotten it into their heads that that doesn't apply to them, at least not during business hours. You know what I'm talking about. When was the last time you heard a politician or a CEO publicly apologize for screwing up? Well, there's a reason why.

No, I'm not talking about admitting to making mistakes in general. Leaders do that so they don't risk sounding as if they're perfect which is, of course, delusional. So sure, they'll admit to being wrong from time to time. They'll even go on about how mistakes build character and all that.

But that's not the same thing as looking someone in the eye and apologizing for saying or doing something that may have done them harm. Or standing up in front of a company or a nation and admitting to having screwed up and caused a lot of people a lot of agony. That's a whole different story.

Sometimes a politician gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar or his you-know-what somewhere it shouldn't have been, like South Carolina governor Mark Sanford or former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Sure, they apologize then, but that's to save their butts, their marriages, and their careers. Or because somewhere deep inside they feel they deserved to get caught. Either way, it's dysfunctional.

Of course, fear of getting locked up in prison may have something to do with it. Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling never admitted to lying to investors about the state of the company, even while he was selling his own shares. The same goes for Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom and other big-time white-collar criminals.

Then there's the possibility that they didn't apologize because they're psychopaths who, on some level, can't admit to having done anything wrong. Yeah, that sounds more like it. But do you think there's any relation between those folks and your average everyday leader who can't bring himself to apologize for his actions to people he's wronged? I think there is.

You can call it anything you want - delusional, narcissistic, egotistic, grandiose, psychopathic, self-important, dysfunctional, elitist - it all boils down to the same thing, a childishly pumped-up, overblown self-image because that's how their minds cope with how they really feel, scared and small.

The truth is that those leaders who can't be genuine with themselves, let alone anyone else, about their true feelings, live on a very slippery slope, indeed.

But not all leaders are like that. Some are actually normal, functional human beings. And when society hoists them up on some impossibly high pedestal, those leaders somehow manage to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground. They don't take their position more seriously than it really is. If they make a mistake, they're comfortable admitting it and apologizing because they're not afraid to admit they're just like everybody else.

And that's why great leaders say they're sorry, just like the rest of us.

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