A heartfelt ‘sorry’ is above all a sign of respect for others and for oneself.
We will not discuss a direct personal fault of the leader him/herself. We will rather talk about a fault committed within any given organisation(al context) that justifies a ‘sorry’. It might have been a structural fault in the past. Popping-up are early expressions of Catholicism versus Judaism. To the degree that the leader personifies the symbolic oneness of himself with the group, his apology on a deeper level – this is: the only level that actually exists – is also the apology of the group. A leader is expected to radiate this oneness, even in expressing his ‘mea culpa’.
So look inside. If that is hard, it is all the more necessary.
Searching within oneself for the significance of the mischief that has been committed. That does not mean that one blames him/herself personally. It does happen in Japan: the leader bursts into tears, declares him/herself very personally responsible and/or he/she will carry the shame and will resign. The cause of this lies partially in the Japanese culture where the distinction between individual and group is naturally less obvious than in the West.
The Western leader has to especially acknowledge the mistakes of the organisation as faults of him/herself-as-a-symbol-figure.
The same goes for feelings of regret – call it remorse if you wish. Idem with the manifestation of that regret. It is a difficult balancing act between oneself as a symbol figure (and role model) and oneself as an individual. Make it too personal and you will end up in a Japanese situation. Which is, in fact, not ideal in Japan either, because it does not come from the leader, who is on a symbolic level also the group/organisation. That symbolism is not evident. This is what makes serious Open Leadership so difficult and also so ‘magical’. Everything else merely has a temporary result and does have a lot of complications. In medicine it is called ‘placebo’.
The term ‘apology’ includes a confession
This means: one experiences ‘guilt’ and one wants to be acquitted of it by a form of forgiveness. In our trading society this is often too easily interpreted. In that case symbolism is not present, because it is far more complicated. Or one tries to trade even at the expense of another. Then the ‘guilt’ will be dumped on others by punishing them. This is not appreciated and with good reason. Guilt is not an object of trade. Viewing it as such is unacceptable and opposite to leadership. Everyone feels that, be it consciously or unconsciously. It is like a dent in the organisation which, as an organic entity, is left with a wound. This wound can fester for many more years and, over time, bring down the whole organisation. Hopefully a new leader will come around who heals the wound. Mind you, it ís possible for the former leader to become this ‘new leader’ after a period of contemplation.
It is recommended that an apology doesn’t carry the message that one is looking for an all too easy release of guilt.
‘Just say sorry and all will be well’ is a slap in the face of all the people involved. Here ‘too easy’ means: with too little commitment. Ultimately respect is being asked. Asking someone for forgiveness = respecting him/her. Just ask it to a victim. Deciding, as a leader, to resign is extreme but that does not mean it is the most respectful option. It kind of carries a negative message: one distances him/herself. One disappears from the field of vision. Hats off for political courage with which this sometimes happens. One alternative is actually the opposite: to face something/someone personally. Are there any victims? Then personal conversations can be very significant. For them, for the organisation and also for the leader him/herself. So do spend time in a personal manner.
“Time is respect.”
A leader is indispensable for the organisation. His time on the other hand is expendable, most certainly if it strengthens his leadership.
An apology is often regarded as a sign of weakness. It actually depends more on the quality of the apology rather than the fact that an apology is being rendered, for example if it is merely a weak apology. The fact that apologies are often seen as a weakness, sadly says a lot about the level of respect that is often, underlyingly, (not) present. In any case: the leader who really does understand the art of apologizing, commands the greatest respect. This is transcultural.
It is safe to say the world needs this.