It takes tremendous fortitude to utter the words “I was wrong, and I am sorry.” I love that word: fortitude. I could list the dictionary definition, but why go to that trouble when there’s Microsoft Word’s handy one-click synonym function, which in fortitude’s case gives us: strength, courage, resilience, grit, determination, endurance, guts, and staying power. Booyah! Who doesn’t want to be all of that?!
So often in business, I deal with people who believe that admitting they were wrong shows weakness or ineptness. The danger of that belief, especially when it is held by people in positions of power or authority, is that it backs a leader into defending their poor choices even when they themselves have come to recognize they were wrong. These managers end up placing false blame on others to prove that they were right. They point fingers and say that someone else didn’t execute as they should have and that is the reason things went wrong. In their minds, they see this as a way to save face, or to prove they are deserving of their power, or to retain respect for their intelligence. Sadly, they don’t accomplish any of those things. In fact, they accomplish the exact opposite.
The best employees in the organization recognize when mistakes have been made, and they also recognize when a manager is covering their own tracks. They ultimately lose respect, trust, and confidence in the manager, and more often than not they will jump ship at the first opportunity to work in a better environment.
I don’t know exactly why so many in the world carry the false belief that admitting their mistakes makes them weak, but I can tell you how I learned to recognize that the opposite is true.
I was somewhere in my twenties visiting the home of a family in California when I witnessed a heated disagreement between the father of the home and his defiant preteen daughter. There was no question that the lesson the father was trying to teach the daughter was a correct one, but the way he handled it was not. He didn’t strike his daughter or become abusive, but his tone was hurtful and degrading.
After the incident ended, knowing the man well, I thought to myself, He has to know that wasn’t right, because I know him to be a good man. But there is no way he would admit it, because he doesn’t want to lose face as the leader of the family. I wouldn’t say that one incident made me lose all respect for the man, because I knew his character better than that, and I knew of his incredible qualities, but I clearly recognized that he was in the wrong. About an hour later, I walked down the hall to hear the man saying these exact words to his daughter: “I was wrong, and I am sorry.”
I was honestly shocked. I had never before heard someone in authority admit they were wrong and apologize like that. He made no excuse for his behavior. He gave no justification, such as “Well, I only acted like that because you did this.” Nothing, nada, zip. He simply admitted he was wrong and apologized. Observing his behavior, my respect for this man grew tremendously. I saw him as a great leader and a person of fortitude that I wanted to be like.
Seeing his behavior that day changed my life, because I recognized that the reason I now saw him as a leader of great fortitude was his willingness to honestly and humbly admit his mistake, especially to someone subordinate to him.
If we want to be genuinely successful in both business and life, we have to be willing to set aside our pride, our fears, and our insecurities, and really come to recognize that to be a true leader who is deserving of our position of authority, we must earn—not demand—the respect of our coworkers. The journey toward earning their respect begins the moment we recognize our mistakes and have the integrity and fortitude to utter the words “I was wrong, and I am sorry.”
~Amy Rees Anderson (author of the book “What Awesome Looks Like: How To Excel in Business & Life” )