By: Dave Miceli, CMAA - Burr and Burton Academy (VT)
I wasn't always good at apologizing. I remember my father demanding I apologize for calling my brother a jerk. I was still angry with my brother and although I knew at some level it would make the situation worse I couldn't help myself. "I'm sorry you're a jerk," was out of my mouth before I realized it. My body was instinctively ducking away even as I heard what had just come out of my mouth. My brother, Mike, began laughing, I began laughing and then my father's stern look cracked. He looked away but not before I saw the creases of a smile break through.
I've gotten better at saying, "I'm sorry," over the years. With ever growing responsibilities professionally and personally it seems the list of people I let down grows larger year after year. Learning a proper apology has been an important piece of my growth and success as an athletic director. If you want to be a great leader you will need to become a great apologizer.
We've all heard terrible apologies. They usually lack in a few areas. The most common problem is the apology where the offender never really owns their accountability. Instead we're left with a leaky bag of excuses offered under the guise of ‘legitimate reasons.' Leaders understand that our legitimate reasons sound like excuses to everybody else.
Another way to duck accountability is to turn the fault for the offense back on the victim. "I'm sorry you were offended..." rarely feels like the apologizer is truly sorry. Certainly it is clear they do not believe that their actions were truly to blame - rather it is those who are so easily offended who are at fault. Worse yet is the, "I'm sorry IF I hurt you." I want to scream back, "Of course you hurt me! I told you that you hurt me! That is the whole reason we are having this conversation in the first place! How can you still be so unsure whether or not I'm hurt?" It makes me feel like I am unheard and uncared for.
The next most common problem is the insistence that intent should factor into making their action ok. I think of Monty Python's Holy Grail where Lancelot is confronted with killing the bride's father. When he offers that he didn't mean to, he receives back, "didn't mean to, you put your sword right through his head." Intentions aside, the fact remains that the bride's father is dead and Lancelot is the reason. If you have caused someone pain, it rarely makes it better if you didn't intend to do so. Sometimes your lack of attention just highlights how little you think of the world from other people's perspectives.
As a new athletic director, I was surprised at how many moving pieces there were to every decision and how often my workflow was interrupted by people who felt their needs were urgent. The result was that I spent a good part of my early years apologizing for details that fell through the cracks. Eventually I developed checklists to improve my accuracy and lessen the impact of interruptions. In the meantime I had plenty of practice apologizing and have honed that skill. Here's the formula I arrived at.
There are three key elements to a good apology.
For example, "I am sorry that there was no bus for today's game. I know the athletes' were disappointed that they couldn't compete. I will reschedule the game and I will revise my checklist to include texting drivers when I make changes to the transportation spreadsheet."
Another surprise to me early on was how often I found myself apologizing for the actions of others. I came to understand that I was accountable for everything that happened in my program up and down the chain of command. Misspelled names in game programs, scores not posted on our website, facilities left a mess, poor sportsmanship by an athlete - if it happens in my athletic program, I own it. And that means apologizing for the actions of others without blaming them.
"I'm sorry that my athlete refused to participate in the post-game handshake. Your players deserved better than that. I will see to it that our athletes get the skills they need to handle emotional moments with more grace."
The key of course is following through on step three. Your apology won't count for much if your actions continue to cause harm. People want a reason to believe in you. An appropriate apology followed by a change in behavior shows that you are committed to quality, builds trust, and demonstrates care for others. A good apology can sometimes do more to build your brand than having gotten things right in the first place.